Pilgrims Pray, Sing in Farewell to Pope
VATICAN CITY (AP) _ As a single bell tolled from St. Peter’s Basilica, pilgrims bade farewell to Pope John Paul II on Friday with the mix of faith and fervor that marked his papacy: Polish flags waved, mourners recited the rosary and young people joined in hymns and folk songs.
At least 300,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square and spilled out onto the wide Via della Conciliazione leading toward the Tiber River, but several million others watched on video screens set up across Rome.
Many pilgrims spent a chilly night in sleeping bags or wrapped in blankets to wait for the funeral of a pontiff who became a global pastor, making 104 international trips during his 26-year papacy.
``This pope was very important to us. We just came to say thank you for everything, to say goodbye to this pope with serenity and joy,″ said Federica Aloisi, 21, a nursing student in Rome who had camped out on the boulevard since late Thursday afternoon.
Some sang hymns to strains of guitar music. Others clapped along to uplifting songs to celebrate the life the 84-year-old pontiff. They shared a breakfast of sandwiches, oranges and bottled water.
The crowd of delegates assembled on St. Peter’s Square reflected the extraordinary mix of faiths and cultures: Orthodox bishops in long black robes, Arabs in checkered headscarves, Central Asians in traditional lambskin caps and Western political leaders in dark suits.
Poles were everywhere, waving red and white national flags for the first Polish-born pope.
``He was all people’s father, especially for us, the Poles,″ said Dominika Bolechowska, 29, an English teacher from Zakopane, Poland, who traveled 28 hours by bus and spent a night on the streets with her 2-year-old son.
Convoys of buses and special trains brought wave after wave of Poles into Rome. Some carried banners with the logo of ``Solidarity,″ the Polish labor movement the pope supported in his historic confrontations against Eastern Bloc communism.
``I spent the night in Poland over there,″ joked Maria Poole, a 27-year-old housewife from St. Paul, Minn., pointing to a knot of Polish pilgrims camped on a corner. ``I think their entire country is here.″
Poole, who now lives in Rome where her husband studies theology, was among many pilgrims who expressed their deep devotion and affection for John Paul.
``He was personal, like a father, like a grandfather. I felt that close to him. I miss him,″ she said, tears streaming down her face.
Video screens also were set up across Rome for pilgrims who couldn’t get near Vatican City, which occupies only 109 acres. On the grassy field in the ancient Circus Maximus, thousands of people gathered around two large screens arranged around a stage displaying a large wooden cross.
Many had hoped to reach St. Peter’s to take part in the funeral but were scared off by warnings issued by Italian authorities and news of huge crowds near the Vatican. Among them was a group of 50 Polish soldiers who had received leave from the army to make the pilgrimage to Rome and had arrived after a daylong bus journey.
``We could see that it would be hopeless,″ said Jill Dixon, a 64-year-old nurse from Canterbury, England.
As the pope’s body was moved into the square, the crowd watching on the screens broke into sustained applause. But after a few chants of ``Giovanni Paolo,″ the streets fell silent except for one man singing the Ave Maria in an operatic baritone.
Young people in jeans and backpacks mingled with nuns, priests, monks and bishops clad in religious habits on streets mostly cleared of traffic after Rome authorities imposed a daylong ban on cars and trucks. Schools and government offices closed for the day, and many private businesses did not open out of respect for the pope.
City parks were dotted with tents, and people in sleeping bags dozed on benches. Some slept directly on the cobblestones, wrapped in brown blankets handed out by first aid workers.
Since John Paul’s death on Saturday, some 4 million pilgrims have visited Vatican City and its surroundings, Rome police chief Marcello Fulvi said.