VATICAN CITY – You don't need to be Catholic to be awe-struck by the majesty of St. Peter's Square, which becomes the stage for the world during times of papal transition.
It is the place of vigil and breathless anticipation before the announcement of the next pontiff. Now, with a new pope in the Vatican apartments above the cobblestone expanse, it becomes an open-air welcoming committee for the papacy and the changing tone of the Vatican with the first Latin American pontiff.
Ahead of Sunday's blessing, street vendors were already selling trinkets with the face of the new pope to pilgrims and tourists as the piazza sprung back to life after the lull following Benedict XVI's historic resignation. Even Pope Francis briefly stepped out of the Vatican City gates near the square to greet two priests in the crowd hours before his first appearance from the famed window of his residence.
Romans, who tend to avoid the square except for religious ceremonies, also have been coming down to soak up the festive atmosphere that seems to have lingered since Wednesday, when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio emerged on the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica.
"Rome wouldn't be the same without St. Peter's and the Vatican," said Valerio Ricci, a 33-year-old engineer strolling across the square Friday with his Peruvian friend, Janet Villanueva.
Ricci, whose family roots in Rome go back "many generations," said some of his most profound memories were from St. Peter's Square, including the emptiness he felt during vigils in connection with the death of the hugely popular John Paul II in 2005.
The recent two-week transition period, however, had the unexpected twist that the previous pope was still alive, a situation that hadn't arisen in 600 years.
"Without the pope, I don't know, it's not the same," Ricci said. "Rome, the Vatican and the pope — it's a strong relationship."
The centuries-old piazza was named after the Apostle Peter, considered the first pope by Catholics. Framed by the imposing basilica and two colonnades embracing it like arms of stone, the elliptical square has witnessed countless religious ceremonies and epic moments when pilgrims mourn the death of a pope or celebrate the election of a new one.
Each papacy has brought its own flavor to the square, reflecting the character of the pontiff and the era he lived in.
Popes used to be carried around the square on a portable ceremonial throne. They now traverse it in the familiar glass-domed popemobile. When Benedict left the Vatican Feb. 28, he was picked up by a helicopter that circled the square as pilgrims pointed banners reading "Thank You" toward the sky.
In another sign of the times, when white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday, the piazza was lit up by a constellation of glowing screen displays as the crowd captured the moment with their smart phones, tablets and other electronic devices that didn't exist when Benedict was elected pope in 2005.
What hasn't changed, pilgrims say, is the sense of spiritual connection many feel stepping through the marble blocks and colonnades that mark the edge of the square, whose centerpiece is a 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk that is flanked by two 17th century fountains.
"You feel that many people are with you in the faith. That you are not alone with Christ," said Monika Vojtasakova, a 27-year-old Slovak who sang and prayed for the pope with colleagues from Rome's Emmanuel School of Mission on the steps leading up to the basilica.
Judging by the past week, St. Peter's mystical appeal transcends the boundaries of faith. A group of Indonesian Muslims hiding from the rain under the roof of the colonnade during the conclave said they made an unscheduled trip to Rome from Germany to witness the historic occasion.
Tourists who just happened to be in Rome for the papal election spent hours in the rain waiting for the smoke from the Sistine Chapel's chimney. Bemused, they watched starry-eyed nuns singing and clapping hands and the odd pilgrim who kneeled in silent prayer on the wet cobblestones.
A couple from largely secular Sweden had mixed feelings about it all.
"It's exciting, but strange at the same time," said Anna Jarl, 68, watching clergymen pass by in their black robes and the Vatican Swiss Guards stand guard in their medieval-style, tri-color uniforms.
Her husband, Christer, said he was puzzled by the number of devout pilgrims flocking to the square, despite the abuse scandals that have roiled the church and its opposition to birth control and abortion — things that are no longer controversial in Sweden.
"That part is really incomprehensible to us," he said. "But the pope as an institution, it's really amazing to see."