Out of silence, a melody rises

VATICAN CITY - St. Peter's Square yesterday was in many ways the portrait of an ideal spring day, sunny and warm and populated by hundreds of boisterous tourists.

But that picture changed quickly.

After Vatican officials went on television in the afternoon and described the condition of Pope John Paul II, the hundreds on the square grew to thousands, and the noise shrank to quiet.

There were already people on hand standing vigil for the pope because they knew he was seriously ill. In the afternoon, though, Vatican officials dropped their veneer of optimism, clearly indicating that the pontiff's long, productive and difficult life would soon be over, and a somberness reserved for the loss of one revered took over.

Nuns arrived in twos and threes and fours, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, gazing upward at the pope's third-floor apartment, which overlooks the square. Priests arrived and dropped to their knees to pray.

Tourists stopped clicking their cameras, lowered their voices and stood still, gazing at the pope's window, though everybody knew that the pope would not appear.

And a lot of people were crying.

At the Vatican Obelisk, the stone column in the middle of the square - the column that once decorated Caesar's Forum - a priest began playing a guitar and a small group of mostly young people around him began to sing - gently sing - religious hymns.

"Andate e annunziate al miei fratelli che li precedo in Galilea," they sang.

"Go and announce to my brothers that I precede them in the Galilee."

Those small voices became like the concentric rings that grow and move outward when a small pebble is dropped into a still pond.

First, the ring of people around those singing began to join in. Then a larger ring of people began singing. Then another ring joined in until several hundred people were singing.

And then the tears really began, because that is what happens when hymns are sung for a dying man.

"I cry because I am sad but also because this is so beautiful," said Francesca Guglielmi, 33, long after the singing stopped but while tears still wetted cheeks. "Papa cared so much for the sick. It is so nice people come to show their care for him."

When the sun sets on the Vatican this time of year, warm temperatures can turn cold quickly, and that is what happened yesterday.

The colder it got, though, the more people arrived at St. Peter's Square, streaming into it from Via della Conciliazione, Villa delle Fornaci and other pathways in such great numbers that there were human traffic jams.

At least as striking as the numbers, though, was the intensity of emotion.

The singing, the tears, the prayers, the candles held close to guard them from the wind and ease, a bit, the chill, continued well past midnight. Approaching 2 a.m., thousands of people remained in the square, with more arriving.

This was after an evening Mass at St. John Lateran Basilica, the pope's church. It stands on the site of the first Catholic basilica, constructed 1,600 years ago by the Roman emperor Constantine, which seems fitting enough because Pope John Paul II has been one of the more notable pontiffs in the Roman Catholic Church's history.

"He is the pope who welcomed the world to believe," said Paulo Gasprro, 41, one of those gazing at the pope's apartment window. "Papa has traveled the world, telling people they are good people, whatever their circumstances. Papa has made the world more little."

After people had been standing for hours, after the cold had worked its way into many bones, Vatican leaders appeared on the steps of St. Peter's.

"When the father suffers, the children come to be by his side," Angelo Comastri, the pope's vicar general for Vatican City told the gathering, which now, according to police, numbered about 30,000. "When the father dies, the children get on their knees and pray."

The father had not died, but with those words some of those on the square knelt, made the sign of the cross and stood.

The rosary was recited. And a large man with a large voice standing with the vicar and maybe a dozen cardinals led the crowd in song.

This time the voice was not like a pebble, did not create rings of response. This time, the 30,000 people sang at once.

They finished the rosary again with the sign of the cross. And then most continued to stand on the square.