Faithful Again Flock to Square

Pilgrims and tourists began filling St. Peter's Square (search) again Saturday to keep vigil as Pope John Paul II (search) neared death and began showing the first signs of losing consciousness.

Preparations appeared to be starting for the elaborate rituals that mark a pope's death. Workmen in the square removed the canopy that had shaded the altar which had been on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica during Mass for Easter last Sunday. One workmen told The Associated Press the space needed to be clear for a procession to bring the papal coffin after death.

The 84-year-old pope's health has rapidly deteriorated with his heart and kidneys failing after he suffered a urinary tract infection. But John Paul is not in a coma and opens his eyes when spoken to, although he began showing the first signs of losing consciousness at dawn, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls (search) told reporters Saturday.

Rome police said they expected hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to arrive in the city over the next few days.

The city transport system said it was beefing up service on bus and subway lines which stop at the Vatican. State radio said portable toilets would be installed near the square, like they were in 2000 for the Holy Year celebrations with John Paul when millions of pilgrims poured into Rome.

Vatican businesses such as the pharmacy and post offices opened as usual to the public, and the post office said it would issue a special stamp when the pope dies. The stamp can only be used until a new pope is elected.

In the square, the crowd which had dwindled from about 70,000 to a few hundred in the hours just before dawn, began growing again, with thousands arriving.

Many people faced the Apostolic Palace, reading Bibles or using cameras or cellular phones to snap pictures of his apartment windows overlooking the square. One woman near the central obelisk was reading a biography of the pontiff; another read out loud from a prayer book.

Many in the crowd looked dazed.

Valeria Lapenna, a 24-year-old university student, stood in the square with her suitcase. She said she was in Naples on Friday with a bus ticket to return to her hometown in Bari, southern Italy, when she heard the news of the pope's deteriorating health and decided to come to Rome. Lapenna said she has been in the square for about 18 hours.

At this point, "I hope that he dies, that he rests without suffering any more. Since he is mentally lucid, it's a double suffering for him," Lapenna said.

Tourists waited patiently in line to go through security screening to enter the basilica — both to visit it and to pray.

Hours earlier, a huge crowd had kept silent vigil under the pope's windows to lend him solace in his spiritual journey toward death.

Spouses tightly held each other's arms, people held dogs on leashes and toddlers slept in strollers during the vigil. Across the square, the rustling of water of the square's two fountains could be heard.

"The silence is beautiful," said Claudio Schipani of Rome, who was ushering in his 26th birthday standing on the edge of the square with his sister, Giorgia Schipani.

The two said they thought of the pope as a grandfather.

"Afterward, there will be a great void," Ms. Schipani said. "He was different. He did something that no one else did. He is the pope of the people, of all the people," she said. "I think even those who aren't believers will shed a tear for him."

"He's always a father to me," said Marzena Lesniak, as she waited for the crowd to begin reciting the rosary late Friday night. A Pole who moved to Rome 15 years ago, she was with her husband and young son in the square where they came most Sunday mornings to be blessed by the pope from his window.

"You felt his suffering," Lesniak said, speaking of the last few times John Paul appeared at his window, grimacing and unable to pronounce a word.