Hundreds of local Catholics streamed up the aisles of Holy Rosary Church in Baltimore Sunday, through incense-sweet air, to venerate the relic of a pope who visited 38 years earlier.
The relic — a drop of Pope John Paul II's blood given to the church last year — took on new meaning for the faithful that day, his first as a canonized saint.
John Paul II was raised up in a historic double papal canonization with Pope John XXIII in Vatican City. More than half a million pilgrims — including at least 40 from Baltimore — joined the crowd as the current pope, Francis, hailed both as "men of courage" who were not overwhelmed by the tumultuous 20th century.
In Baltimore, which John Paul II visited once as a cardinal and once as pope, Catholics celebrated with Masses, meals, wreath-laying and an exhibit highlighting his day-long stay in 1995. Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski looked around Holy Rosary's packed hall after Mass with a wide smile.
"For those who could not be in Rome, like myself, I think this is the next best thing," he said.
John Paul II's canonization was particularly meaningful to members of the Upper Fells Point church. His visit in 1976 — as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla — is a connection from the past, his relic a link to the present.
But there's a deeper bond, too, one of common heritage. John Paul II was born in Poland and Holy Rosary is a Polish-American church, with services in both Polish and English.
Rita Gluth, 70, who lives a block from Holy Rosary and is a lifelong parishioner, calls him "our pope — our friend." She can still remember the day he stopped at her church with a delegation of Polish bishops and ate lunch.
"He was just so personable," she said. "You felt like you knew him your whole life."
The 1995 visit to Baltimore gave more people a chance to hear and see John Paul II in person — over 50,000 at a huge Mass at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, plus sightings on a parade route, at Our Daily Bread and elsewhere.
Mark and Carol Pacione, who helped organize portions of the event, shook his hand at the end of that long day, just before he boarded a plane at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. On Sunday, 18 and a half years later, they woke early to watch his canonization alongside John XXIII at 3:30 a.m.
"I'd never seen a canonization previously, so I didn't know quite what to expect," said Carol Pacione, a Fallston resident. "It was beautiful but very simple."
It was meaningful to them to see both popes so recognized. The Paciones are lay ministers at St. Pius X Church in Rodgers Forge, and without the modernizing Second Vatican Council launched by John XXIII in 1962, Carol Pacione doubts that would have been possible.
And then there was the brief meeting with John Paul II, who was exhausted but took a moment to say words Mark Pacione will never forget.
"He said, 'Thank you, God bless you,'" Mark Pacione recalled, adding, "It was kind of interesting to be thanked by a guy you knew, someday he would be a saint. You knew."
John Paul II, who reigned for nearly 27 years until his death in 2005, witnessed the devastation of his homeland during World War II and is credited by many with helping end the Cold War and bring down communism.
John XXIII, who served from 1958 to 1963 and is the reason Masses are typically celebrated in local languages rather than Latin, lived through both world wars.
The two popes being canonized on the same day is widely seen as representing contrasting faces of the Church — liberal and conservative — and has added to the significance of an event that Pope Francis hopes will draw the world's 1.2 billion Catholics closer together.
"These were two men of courage ... and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God's goodness and mercy," Pope Francis said in his address.
"They lived through the tragic events of that [20th] century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful," he added.
In Vatican City, the crowd for the double canonization was so large it stretched back along Via della Conciliazione, the broad, half-kilometer boulevard that starts at the Tiber River.
The Mass was also attended by former Pope Benedict, who last year became the first pontiff in six centuries to step down. Pope Benedict walked with a cane and was dressed in white.
The Vatican said more than 500,000 people filled the basilica area while another 300,000 watched the event on large TV screens throughout Rome. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori along with the group of about 40 local Catholics were among those who traveled to be there.
The overwhelming majority in the crowd were Poles who had come from their home country and immigrant communities as far afield as Chicago and Sydney to watch their most famous native son become a saint.
Hundreds of red and white Polish flags filled the square and the streets surrounding the Vatican, which were strewn with sleeping bags, backpacks and folding chairs.
"For years Pope John Paul II took the Church to the ends of the earth and today the ends of the earth have come back here," said Father Tom Rosica, head of Canada's Salt and Light Catholic television network.
In Baltimore, about 800 people worshipped at Holy Rosary and listened to Rozanski — who attended the church's school as a child — speak about the impact both popes had on the world.
Earlier in the day, Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden led a procession to the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden outside the Basilica to pray, sing and place a wreath of yellow and white flowers beside the saint's statute there.
Jason Hage, a seminary student in Baltimore who serves as a deacon at the basilica, is a month and a half away from ordination. He was swept up in the emotion of that moment in the garden as he thought about the two popes — "these men who inspire me."
"It's an exciting day," Hage said, "a very historic day."
Reuters contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun