VATICAN CITY – What will I most remember about the last month here in Rome? Crowds — of all kinds:
Small Crowds: Young people at two in the morning strummed guitars and sang songs in St. Peter's Square under the window of Pope John Paul II's apartment as the end neared for the Holy Father. Still, despite the life-and-death moment, the kids were laughing and joking, almost celebrating this man who was decades and decades older then them but who somehow made a youthful connection.
Big Crowds: Hundreds of thousands of people stood and walked respectfully through the streets of Rome leading to the Vatican. They were packed 60-70 people across (I know...I spent some time sandwiched amid the throngs to try it out) as they worked their way along Rome's Tiber River, across the bridges and down the boulevards towards St. Peter's. They waited for hours and hours (sometimes as long as 12 hours) for their one minute near the body of the late pope. No one shouted, no one pushed, no one really complained.
Sleeping Crowds: Polish pilgrims were attending the late pope's funeral, turning Rome's parks and riverfronts and medieval moats around one-time castles into camping grounds. Most of them were young and didn't seem to mind roughing it. And most of them were still shaking the sleep out of their heads as we walked to our positions to cover early morning functions.
Media Crowds: Who says religion doesn't sell newspapers … or draw viewers? It seemed like every rooftop (sometimes costly), balcony or spare lot was crammed with journalists, most obviously television, to cover the papal pageantry. Rome was filled with all we brought with us: satellite dishes, campers filled with supplies (that means sometimes soggy pizza), miles of cables and rows of "porto-sans." Sometimes it seemed liked the media itself was the show with visitors from various lands — whether it was American or German or Polish — with fans eager to talk to, or take pictures, with their own media stars.
Quiet Crowds: Many of the throngs said a quick Hail Mary or crossed themselves as they shuffled by the tomb of the late pope after the body was carried to the grotto below St. Peter's Basilica. The final resting place was a simple slab with no pretense or complication. The Polish pope is in good company; Popes Paul VI and John Paul I as well as what are believed to be the remains of St. Peter, basically the first Pope, lie in rest nearby.
Watching Crowds: People strained to figure out if puffs of smoke coming from a chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel was black (no pope chosen) or white (pope selected). Despite a new back-up system — a second stove to burn a chemical additive plus a fan to make the burning ballots look the right color, plus the bells of St. Peter's to chime in the news — it was still mass chaos. The first day, my cameraman was sure the smoke was white (it was black). And the second day, we all held back a good 20 minutes even though the smoke was really white (the bells took their time to toll).
Praying Crowds: With most of the masses and services held outside, that meant if the people knelt or genuflected or worshipped they did it out on the street. They literally used the middle of oil and tar laden-lanes as their church aisles, turned sidewalks into chapels and alleyways into cathedrals. It was an amazing sign of the devotion and dedication of these people that they would rough it in this way … along with braving the elements (when the Polish pope died, he took much of the good weather with him; the Rome climate turned cold, rainy and windy).
Running Crowds: When the decision was made for the next pope, it seemed like all of Rome had to get to St. Peter's Square to find out who it was. But for some reason that day, the Italian police, who had been remarkably attentive throughout this period, were nowhere to be found. I personally saw at least half a dozen people nearly get run over (some of them with babies in strollers) by rushing Roman motorists. No one, it seemed, wanted to get caught in their home or office or coffee bar when this chunk of history was happening in St. Peter's.
Hopeful Crowds: In the days following the naming of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, there were many events of note, starting with the first appearance of the man himself at the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. There were audiences with the Cardinals and the media, a stop-off at his old apartment and then the massive installation Mass this past Sunday. It seemed like this man, who has a reputation of being a tough theological task master — even a stern enforcer of the faith — was doing his utmost to show a kinder and gentler side, often saying he was more interested in "listening" than telling people what to do. He also invoked the words and the memory of Pope John Paul II at every opportunity. It is that legacy — and the soothing words of dialogue — that had the people during the last few days placing their hopes with the "new man" at the top.