VATICAN CITY – The heart of Rome is no longer the Sistine Chapel or the Coliseum, but the great line of mourners.
At least for this week.
The line stretches around tight side streets and up the length of the Via Della Conciliazione, the wide avenue leading to the Vatican, before snaking through St. Peter’s Square and finally reaching the stairs of the basilica where the body of Pope John Paul II rests.
People who joined the back of the line Tuesday could not even see St. Peter’s Basilica. They joined knowing that it would take at least six and perhaps eight hours to reach the pontiff, and knowing that when they finally arrived, they would be forced to walk right past his body without being given even 10 seconds to stop and pray.
Perhaps more than anything else, the line is a living testament to the legacy of John Paul, more powerful than anything that a deep-voiced cardinal may intone at Friday’s papal funeral Mass.
“Would you look at this? This is unbelievable,” said Vincenzo Peluso, a Newark, N.J., police officer, who happened to be in Rome on vacation, as he gazed down the broad boulevard leading into St. Peter’s Square at a crush of humanity for as far as the eye could see.
Italian officials calculated that more than a million people would have walked past the pope’s body by the end of Tuesday, with days yet to go before the funeral.
That was well ahead of estimates, and it reinforced the sense that much about the media-age version of this centuries-old papal transition process, from the live, close-up television images of the pope’s body to the unprecedented number of world leaders attending the memorial service, would break ground.
Tent cities were being erected to accommodate the throngs, and the estimates of total visitors were bumped from 2 million to 4 million.
Among those visitors – most certainly not staying in tents – will be President Bush and his wife, Laura, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the White House announced Tuesday. Bush will be among more than 100 world leaders. The only head of state at Pope John Paul I’s funeral in 1978 was the Italian president.
As the mourners and tourists poured in to pay respects to the late pope, the men who will select the next one met in secret for the second day in a row to set the transition in motion.
Ninety-one of the 183 living cardinals met in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said at a news conference.
He also said John Paul II’s body hadn’t been embalmed, only “prepared” for viewing. He didn’t say what that meant, nor whether the body would be embalmed eventually.
Navarro-Valls said the date for when the cardinals would meet to select the next pope, known as the conclave, hadn’t been set. But he said it had been decided that when the new pope was elected, bells would ring out – in addition to the traditional white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel – to dispel any confusion.
Cardinals continued to sit for interviews, offering the tiniest slivers of insight into their thinking about the direction of the church.
A group of American cardinals met with U.S. journalists but revealed little about who they thought would be the next pope.
“I can’t talk at all – it’s the rules of the game,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago began by saying. Then he ventured that “no one person possesses all the qualities” that the next pope needs, “but that person should be able to call on others.”
A cardinal from Detroit, Edward Szoka, a trusted aide to John Paul II who is credited with stabilizing Vatican finances as governor of Vatican City, didn’t seem quite ready to talk of succession.
“To tell you the truth, even in the last day when the pope was very sick, I honestly had no desire to be part of a conclave, voting for the next pope, because I so love this one,” he said.
Love was a theme for many of those waiting to see the pope’s body, whether they’d agreed with him or not.
“We’re here to give him one last goodbye, and to thank him for all he did for us,” said Ornella Castellano, 22, who is from a small town outside Naples. No, she isn’t a devout Catholic, she said, and no, she didn’t agree with the pope on matters of sexuality.
“For us who live under the ‘young’ point of view, it’s a different matter,” she said, summing up how many Italians balance their cultural affinity with the Catholic Church with their disregard for some of its strictures.
Aaron Decker, 22, from Howell, Mich., came by bus with fellow students from his study-abroad program in Austria. They arrived early and had to wait only three hours in line.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I am sad to see him go, but I’m sure he’s happy that he’s home now.”