Tidal Wave of Pilgrims Crests in Rome
About 4 million people, including a last-minute contingent from Poland, converged around the world’s tiniest state as the humble and the mighty joined for today’s burial of Pope John Paul II.
Pilgrims camped out overnight in the alleys around St. Peter’s Basilica in anticipation of the requiem Mass. Helicopters clattered overhead and sirens screamed through city streets.
Italian authorities banned private vehicle traffic in the center of Rome, closed airspace over the city and lined up antiaircraft rocket launchers.
Schools and public offices were closed. Twenty-seven giant screens were erected to broadcast three hours of funeral coverage across Rome.
Early today, the pope’s body was being placed in a simple cypress coffin before its transfer to the steps in front of the basilica.
Only VIPs were allowed into a small area outside the building.
The sea of people barred from St. Peter’s Square stretched back a quarter of a mile in some places. The crowd carried portraits of the pontiff, waved flags from his native Poland and other countries and waited under a mostly cloudy sky for the ceremony to begin.
The Vatican also found itself treading on delicate diplomatic territory Thursday. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was en route to the funeral Thursday in defiance of a European Union travel ban. And when the Vatican welcomed President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, China called off its plans to send a high-level delegation.
President Bush, heading the U.S. delegation, spent much of the day out of public view. He met with Italian officials and apologized for a March shooting in Iraq, in which U.S. troops killed an Italian agent shortly after he had freed an Italian hostage held by militants.
The collection of dignitaries is unrivaled in recent memory. John Paul’s funeral is bringing together Bush and two of his enemies, the leaders of Iran and Syria; clerics of rival faiths; heads of nations recently at war.
With the ancient city inundated by pilgrims, Vatican authorities allowed a final stream of faithful to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and file past the pope’s body Thursday.
Police had blocked anyone else from joining the line late Wednesday, but relented in the face of tearful pleas from the last arrivals, many of them Poles who had journeyed to Rome.
Red-and-white Polish flags flecked the square as buses, special trains and cars carrying Catholics from the pope’s native country rolled into the city. Bleary-eyed and standing in the sun, the Poles, many of them holding sleeping bags and bottled water handed out by volunteers, prayed and sang.
“John Paul was a very, very good man,” said Matthew Mateuscz, who arrived with his grandmother and uncle after a 25-hour train ride from Gdansk. “He helped the world.”
So enormous was the influx that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, urging him to prevent more from undertaking the journey.
The city of Rome set up temporary shelters to house tens of thousands of pilgrims, and appealed to residents to take in anyone who could not find a place to stay.
“I don’t care where I sleep; all that matters is being here,” said Antonietta Mascolo, a 45-year-old school secretary from Bologna. She and her 15-year-old son spent the night at a sprawling tent encampment set up on the city’s outskirts. “We loved this pope.”
Trying to encourage some of the arrivals to stay away from St. Peter’s, authorities set up the giant TV screens around the city.
Civil guard volunteer Luca Quargnal said he was awed by the display of devotion by pilgrims and other mourners who waited so many hours to make their way into St. Peter’s.
“I wouldn’t wait that long for anything, but they have faith, and it makes them do this,” he said.
A nine-day period of official mourning begins with the pope’s funeral.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report.