Electing a pope: Day Two
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Posted April 3, 2005 at 10:47 a.m.
Mourners flood St. Peter’s Square
‘Italy weeps for a father’


Everyone present in Rome had known what to expect. First the bell would toll. Then the square would swell. The prayers would intensify. But foreknowledge did not soften the final blow. The death of Pope John Paul II was not just the end of a pontificate, it was a death in the family.

“We all feel like orphans this evening,” Undersecretary of State Archbishop Leonardo Sandri told the tens of thousands already in St. Peter’s Square minutes after the pontiff’s death. Their numbers would rapidly multiply as the city population converged on the square, filling its oval contours with a sea of down cast faces and flickering candle light.

John Paul’s departure had opened a void, and his followers were struggling to fill it. Prelates led the square in song and prayer with wavering voices, and the massive audience responded with tears, thousand-mile stares and upward glances at the trio of illuminated windows, looming high above the scene, that marked the newly-vacated papal apartment.

“Rome without the pope isn’t Rome,” explained Barbara De Angelis, 24, an anthropology major at Rome’s La Sapienza University. Like many in the city, she had spent the day in the square, sifting through clusters of tourists and well wishers, aiming to get the inside scoop on John Paul’s deterioration. Now she had her answer. “Breathe it in. It’s all over,” she said, surveying the scene.

Applause erupted from different ends of the square, a traditional gesture of Italian mourning. In an address from the Quirinale Palace, a former papal residence that now hosts the Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi reflected on how the pontiff had “shaped our conscience.” “Italy weeps for a father,” he said.

Public mourning also found expression in a burst of late night traffic that plugged the narrow byways around the Vatican. “Romans don’t follow the pope, they live him,” observed Luis Gonzales, a native of Guatemala City, Guatemala, who moved to Rome 40 years ago. Gonzales offered John Paul high marks for his performance as the bishop of Rome—a role that for many was affirmed minutes after his election when the polyglot pope addressed St. Peter’s Square in Italian, instructing the people of Rome to “correct me if I err.” Gonzales also praised the pontiff’s subsequent acquisition of Romanesco, the local dialect.

When the subject turned to church attendance, however, Gonzale took a confessional tone. “We’re still bad Catholics. No one goes to church. But look at this,” he said gesturing at the square, “the sheep returning to the shepherd.”

Amid the crowds of arriving Romans, clumps of foreign tourists staked out their positions and dug in. Josh Rogers, 21, of South Hadley, Mass., sat in the square with his luggage, dumbstruck by the timing of John Paul’s death. “It’s my first trip to Rome, and the pope is dead,” he said. “Now what happens?”

Throughout the night into the early morning, mourners lingered in the square lighting candles. And when day broke, patches of spilt candle wax caked the cobblestones. Sunday soccer and variety television, Italy’s other national pastimes, had both been canceled. At newsstands, Italy’s factional print media expressed a rare moment of unity. The communist newspaper Il Manifesto, a vocal critic of the church, blew a unprecedented kiss to the pontiff with a banner headline that read: “You don’t make another!” a revision of the popular Roman saying that if “one pope dies, you make another.”

As the hour of John Paul’s requiem mass approached, the weather warmed and shops selling religious objects bustled. The multitudes had returned, bearing flags, banners and solemn expressions. Seasoned papal mourners noted the robust turnout and the crush of media coverage. “Everyone is watching us,” said Emma Costantini, 77, “But I’m used to it.” John Paul was her fifth pope.

Graziano de Marinis, 68, was also mourning his fifth pope—the one he “knew best.” In his wallet he carried a photo taken in 1981 of John Paul kissing his then six-year old son Marco during a visit to his local church. Marinis tucked copy of Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper under his arm. The banner read: “Addio Wojtyla.” He had just finished skimming the 27 pages-worth of the paper’s papal coverage for profiles of leading papabili. “I don’t know these guys,” he said.

Stacy Meichtry is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He is reporting and writing for NCR during this period of papal transition.


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