Tired, but excited and happy and overjoyed. That was the general answer given by the three dozen Washington-area pilgrims who attended the April 27 canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II when asked what they thought about being present at the historic event.

On a pilgrimage sponsored by the Catholic Standard, these hearty souls took an eight-hour transatlantic flight to Europe, had a layover in Amsterdam, hopped on a plane for another couple of hours, took a quick tour of Rome and only had time for a couple hours sleep before heading off in the early morning darkness of Divine Mercy Sunday to be a part of history.

We were part of the estimated one million people who crowded St. Peter's Square and the area surrounding the Vatican to watch as Pope Francis declared two of his predecessors as saints. We were there as Francis praised St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II as men of courage and mercy who "cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church."

"I didn't have any coffee, but I could feel my heart racing and my chest thumping," one Washington pilgrim said of her presence at the canonizations.

"We are at an historic place for an historic occasion. We've experienced the wonder of our faith and our great tradition," is how Msgr. John Enzler, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington who served as chaplain to the Washington group, described the pilgrimage.

By the way, Washingtonians not only traveled to Rome for the canonizations, but we've celebrated in our own town, as well. There was a wonderful May 5 concert at DAR Constitution Hall, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl offered two Masses of Thanksgiving here last weekend. We have stories on both those events on pages 10-12 in this week's paper.

I've given a lot of thought as to why these canonizations - almost a month later - are still such a source of joy and celebration not only in Rome and Washington, but around the world.

Perhaps part of the reason is that this truly was an historic event. St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II are certainly not the first popes to be honored as saints, but it is the first time in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church that two popes were canonized at the same time. It was also the first time that two living popes - Francis and Benedict XVI - were both present at a canonization Mass.

I think another reason is that these popes - now saints - are truly our contemporaries. They lived during the lifetimes of most of us.

Consider this: we have an intimate familiarity and a personal knowledge of holy men who have been elevated to the honors of the altar. John XXIII was canonized about 50 years after he died. For John Paul II, the honor comes just nine years after his death. We watched - and perhaps, joined in - as the crowds at his funeral chanted "Santo subito!" ("Sainthood at once!").

These saints are not only beloved popes, but people whom we may have seen at the Vatican or saw on television or about whom we read in the newspaper or who - in the case of St. John Paul II - actually walked our streets. They are real men whose voices we heard. We can relate to them as something more than a statue whose likeness they represent or an image on a holy card or a figure on a stained glass window. These are saints we know.

Each pilgrim in our group had his or her own reason for attending the canonizations. For me, I felt a need to be present as the man who fostered my understanding of and love for my Catholic faith was declared a saint. No disrespect to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill who taught me my catechism and prepared me for my First Holy Communion, but my religious formation came into clearer focus under John Paul II.

It was my reading as an adult Pope John Paul's writings and texts of his talks - whether they were catecheses on the Blessed Virgin Mary, the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sanctity of all life, the dignity of women or any of a myriad of other topics - that I truly began to live my life as a practicing Catholic.

I have been a reporter here at the Standard for almost three decades. I like to pretend that I have seen it all and that I am not too easily impressed. But, I have to admit that a pilgrimage to Rome and the Vatican never fails to excite.

In addition to attending the canonization Mass, we pilgrims visited St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls. We prayed at the Church of St. Peter in Chains, built where the great apostle was imprisoned, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The church houses, and we pilgrims had the opportunity to venerate, what are traditionally believed to be the actual chains that bound St. Peter. At that church, we also got to gaze at Michelangelo's famous masterpiece, Moses.

Washingtonians also visited the catacombs, gathering beneath the city where persecuted Christians gathered and where the Church's early saints and martyrs were laid to rest.

We also attended Pope Francis's weekly general audience. I have to admit that I put aside my sense of decorum and shouted and screamed and waved and took pictures as our dear Holy Father passed just feet in front of me. It is impossible not to get swept up in the great emotion that comes from an encounter with our beloved pope and a visit to the venerable city of Rome.

Washington's pilgrims witnessed history as we were among the first people in the world to intone, "St. John XXIII, pray for us! St. John Paul II, pray for us!" May the jubilation and happiness and excitement we now feel continue for years to come.