Pope opens John Paul II, John XXIII canonisation mass

Pilgirms attend the canonisation mass of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on St Peter's at the Vatican on April 27, 2014. Pope Francis began an historic ceremony on St Peter's Square on Sunday, April 27, 2014, to confer sainthood on two of
Pilgirms attend the canonisation mass of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on St Peter's at the Vatican on April 27, 2014. Pope Francis began an historic ceremony on St Peter's Square on Sunday, April 27, 2014, to confer sainthood on two of his predecessors - John Paul II and John XXIII. -- PHOTO: AFP

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis began an historic ceremony on St Peter's Square on Sunday to confer sainthood on two of his predecessors - John Paul II and John XXIII.

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI was also in attendance as Francis came out on the Vatican piazza in a procession in which cardinals recited the Litany of Saints.

Thousands thronged St Peter's Square - many of them waving flags from John Paul II's homeland, Poland - after spending the night singing, dancing and praying.

Pilgrims attended vigils and camped out in the Eternal City ahead of a ceremony seen as a way of uniting conservative and reformist strands of Catholicism.

This is the first time that a ruling pope and a living former pontiff celebrate mass jointly and the first time that two popes are canonised on the same day.

"This is very emotional!" said Luigi Villa, a 77-year-old from John XXIII's hometown of Sotto Il Monte in the foothills of the Italian Alps, who queued from the early morning with a group of some 140 townspeople.

A giant Polish flag lifted by balloons could be seen floating over St Peter's Square and a Polish youth brass band tuned up ahead of the grand mass.

Maria, a 20-year-old from Mexico, said: "I am very tired. I haven't slept but I am very excited!" "John Paul II represents love," she said.

Francis has reached levels of popularity not seen since the glory days of John Paul II but Vatican experts say he is more comparable to John XXIII - a down-to-earth unifying figure with the style of a parish priest.

By sainting them together, Francis "is speaking not just to the outside world but to rival camps within the Catholic fold who see John XXIII and John Paul II as their heroes", said US-based Vatican expert John Allen.