ROME – Rome (search) is scrambling to be ready for what might be one of its biggest influxes of people in modern times: the arrival of up to 2 million pilgrims paying their final respects to the late Pope John Paul II.
The city is preparing security measures, as well as thousands of beds, water supplies, medical assistance and bus shuttles ahead of the late pontiff's funeral, expected to be held later in the week.
"For us, it will be an extraordinary challenge," Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni (search) said Sunday. "It will be like organizing a Jubilee in 48 hours," he added, referring to yearlong celebrations in 2000 that brought several million pilgrims to the Italian capital and required massive preparations.
Starting Monday afternoon, the pope's body will lie in state at St. Peter's Basilica (search) — a display expected to draw a steady stream of people.
The funeral Mass will be held in St. Peter's Square, as was the case for John Paul II's two predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul I. It is expected to last over two hours and draw world leaders, the Vatican hierarchy and ordinary faithful.
At the last papal funeral in 1978, the pontiff's coffin was placed atop a rug in front of the altar. Cardinals, wearing red vestments, processed in order of seniority and took their seats. During one part of the Mass, the ceremonial Swiss Guards, who wear distinctive purple-gold-and-red uniforms, kneel and dip their halberds with their right hand and salute with their left.
On Sunday, the Italian Cabinet held an emergency meeting, while the Civil Protection Department and the capital's City Hall were working at full speed to discuss preparations.
"We are expecting from 1 (million) to 2 million pilgrims in Rome, but we can't really predict how many will arrive," Cabinet minister Roberto Calderoli said after Sunday's meeting.
During John Paul's 26-year pontificate, he traveled the world tirelessly to bring his message to far-flung flock. But he also was beloved by Romans: For as long as his health and travels allowed, the pope would visit a parish in the capital every Sunday, giving faithful from neighborhoods across the city a chance to get a close glimpse of him.
St. Peter's Square has been filled with people since Thursday night, when the pope's health took a sharp turn for the worse. Faithful have held vigils, prayed and sung for the dying pontiff. When the announcement of the pope's death was made, an estimated 100,000 people packed the square.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has appointed the head of the Civil Protection Department, Guido Bertolaso, to be in charge of preparations. Bertolaso has been the point man for all major events in Italy in recent years, and successfully handled a crowd of more than 1 million youths pouring into Rome for meetings with the pope during the 2000 World Youth Day.
Some measures already are in place. The large boulevard leading to St. Peter's has been closed off to private traffic for days. Police have tightly patrolled the area, while ambulances have been on standby to aide the pilgrims.
City Hall has increased the number of bus runs and prepared bus shuttles to and from the capital's two main railway stations, and it is preparing extra train runs and parking lots. Medical assistance and water supplies will be provided to the pilgrims in and around St. Peter's, and hundreds of portable toilets will be set up.
A massive camp site is being set up on the outskirts of the city to accommodate thousands of visitors. Il Messaggero, a Rome-based newspaper, said Sunday that officials also are considering using sports venues, including the Olympic Stadium, to house pilgrims.