By Jay Levine

ROME, Italy (CBS) — The first of many pilgrims from the Chicago area began arriving at the Vatican Thursday for the rise to sainthood for two popes.

In an underground church built in the Fourth Century, surrounded by 1,000-year-old relics, pilgrims from the Fox River Valley gathered to pray.

They listened to their pastor, raised in west suburban Geneva, describe his own close encounter with a soon-to-be-sainted Pope John Paul II in Chicago.

When he shook hands with the pope, Father David Peck says, Cardinal Cody gave him a look that indicated, “Don’t take too long.”

“I was 23 years old and still just finding myself, but I knew when I was in his presence there was this saintly, holy aura,” he tells CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine.

Rome is ready for these Chicagoans and the hundreds of thousands who’ll join them — with billboards heralding the historic event and wax museum figures of the new saints. Souvenir stands stock custom made memorabilia, featuring the two former popes and the one who decided to elevate them the same day.

Speaking of John Paul II, Tami Bone of St. Charles says: “I saw so many people that weren’t even Catholic who he made a difference in their lives.”

The requirements for sainthood still include miracles.

A Costa Rican woman says her brain aneurism disappeared after she prayed to John Paul II. Her miracle followed a French nun who recovered from Parkinson’s disease after praying to the late Pope.

But bending the rules on speed for John Paul II may have led to the special exemption for Pope John XXIII from the two-miracle rule. He’s been credited with just one,

“A miracle’s a miracle,” says Father Thomas Baima of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “There’s clear evidence of god working through their intercession and that’s good enough for me.”

The Vatican has now downgraded its estimate of the number of pilgrims expected this weekend. But it’s still anticipating anywhere from 750,000 to 1 million — all trying to squeeze into a square which can hold only 250,000.

Father Robert Dodaro, raised in Park Ridge, schooled in Hyde Park, now works here.

“Pope Francis will have toned down a little bit the pomp and circumstance,” he says. “This is a pope really committed to simplifying.”

But it’ll by no means be a simple. Sunday’s sainthood Mass will be concelebrated by 135 Cardinals; 1,000 bishops and 6,000 priests.



Watch & Listen LIVE