Although most of the 52 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles could not get into St. Peter’s Square April 27, they still were able to feel the excitement surrounding the “Eternal City” for the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.

While most of the group stayed at a distant location on one of the streets that leads to the Vatican, Santos Uy and his wife were able to walk further up and remain in a place closer to the famous plaza.

“We were able to see and hear everything,” Santos, a cardiologist who works for St. Vincent Hospital in Los Angeles, told The Tidings, as he proudly showed photos of Pope Francis on a big screen, which he took with his small digital camera.

Thousands of the reported 800,000 pilgrims from throughout the world had to settle for places miles away from St. Peter’s. But simply being in the vicinity of this historic event meant a great deal.

“It was incredible!” was the common response of prilgrims from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “I felt like I really was attending a Mass,” declared Emily Chavez.

At 7 a.m., three hours before the historic Mass where Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were proclaimed Saints by Pope Francis, the famous plaza was packed. The street assigned for press and priests’ access was opened about five-and-a-half hours before the event started, and all, except those accredited permanently to the Vatican, had to wait in long lines to reach a security control before entering the plaza. Although there was some pushing, for the most part the event was well organized.

Inside the gated plaza, hundreds of “campers” — all of whom had been evicted the previous day — were allowed to re-enter when gates opened at 5 a.m.

One of those was Theresa Wong, a parishioner of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Rowland Heights, and her niece Teddy Liu, who had arrived from China the day before. They left their luggage at the hotel and ran to the plaza to secure a good spot, though still far from the main sanctuary, which featured a lower tier with chairs set for the religious (mostly priests) and an upper tier for cardinals, archbishops and dignitaries.

What mattered to Wong and Liu (who each only spent one whole day in Rome and then went back home) was to represent their Catholic Chinese ancestors who were persecuted and killed for their beliefs.

In the plaza, standing a few meters away from large pictures of John XXIII and John Paul II hanging on both sides of the crucifix of St. Peter’s Basilica, Wong recalled growing up in the pontificate of John XXIII and being told by her parents what he did to “open up” the Church to the world.

And, she added, probably never in her lifetime will she be able to witness the canonization of two popes at once, something set into motion by the increasingly popular Pope Francis. “This is very meaningful to me,” she said. “Bless the three of them.” 

Wong said she hoped to “receive the Holy Spirit” while waiting in the plaza, where she took a two-hour nap. And she resolved to become “more committed” at her home parish.

‘Praying for graces’

Just a few steps away, sitting on a stool, was Sister of the Congregation of the Religious Family of the Incarnated Verb Sister Ana de Jes√∫s, who flew from Santa Clara, Calif., to join about 100 members from her congregation attending the event from other countries.

Upon arriving April 26 at 3 p.m. in Rome, she and her fellow sisters headed to the plaza. She was there to “ask for graces from both Saints — graces for my congregation and for all the Church.” 

“I¬¥m also interested in learning more about the life and example of both popes,” said the missionary assigned to Santa Clara¬¥s Our Lady of Peace parish. “Learn from their virtues, their commitment to the Church, and thus be an example to other people.”

As an Argentinean herself, she said she was “so proud” of Pope Francis. “He is so charitable, with such a huge charisma. He shines among others.”

A few steps away from her were Nena Solis and Cristina Prada, waving a Mexican flag. At midnight April 27 the two women from Laredo, Texas, had started walking on the Via de la Conziliazione towards St. Peter’s Square, and they were elated to have reached a spot close to the obelisk situated right in the middle of the plaza, where they could be closer to the sanctuary.

Liturgical music that played on speakers throughout the plaza were the lullabies for the hundreds of pilgrims sleeping on tap of mats or sleeping bags. Others ate light breakfasts (pastries, fruits, bars or sandwiches), and most chatted, making friends with the strangers next to them.

The fellowship continued after the ceremony.

Elba Manzo, a St. Brendan (Los Angeles) parishioner, was grateful to have met Guido Gusso, St. John XXIII´s butler who accompanied him for the last 10 years of his life. After the canonization ceremony, Gusso ate lunch with archdiocesan pilgrims at a restaurant located a short walk from the Vatican.

Gusso, who witnessed the last breath of the “Good Pope,” attended the lunch with his wife Anna, son Giovanni and daughter-in-law Antonella (Pope John XXIII performed their marriage ceremony), and grandson Gabriele. 

He told the group about the new saint¬¥s “simplicity” and good sense of humor. And how, before he died, the pope made sure that Gusso had a permanent job at the Vatican, where is now a Dean of the Pontifical Room. 

“For me,” said Manzo, “this was an unforgettable and prayerful experience.”