Throngs turn city piazza into open-air church


ROME - Krzszytof Rybarczyk arrived at the Piazza Pia at dawn yesterday, later than most, and wedged himself into the rumpled mass of bodies there. What he saw once the sun fully rose - a stifling crowd, ankle-deep trash - would have appalled him on any day other than yesterday.

For at 10:05 a.m., when the pallbearers first hoisted the coffin of Pope John Paul II onto their shoulders, Rybarczyk and the thousands upon thousands of people around him stood and applauded.

They could barely see the image on a video screen in the distance, but they quickly grew quiet and transformed the littered piazza into what might as well have been a cathedral.

Such, he and the people around him agreed, was their love for il Papa.

"Everyone still wants to come to him," said Rybarczyk, a Warsaw native who now lives in London. "He still has the chance to touch people."

Piazza Pia was an unlikely place to touch anyone within sight of the funeral proceedings - or even to see them. Conceived by Mussolini as the gateway to the Via della Conciliazione, the avenue that leads to St. Peter's Basilica, the cobblestone square is nearly a half-mile from the basilica.

And yet people came.

Lured partly by the video screen, and also by the expansive sleeping grounds nearby, they began staking out territory beginning Thursday.

By sundown Thursday, the dry moat surrounding the adjacent Castle Sant'Angelo was a crowded field of tents and flags.

The Italian nuns of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor arrived at about 3:30 a.m., seizing a stretch of curb and unfolding their wooden chairs to wait. The sisters didn't care that their only view of the funeral would be by video, saying they wanted to feel the event rather than watch it from home.

"I believe that he is a saint - that we should not wait for the church hierarchy to canonize him, but he should be made a saint by the wishes of the people," said Sister Carla Casadei, a few minutes before the funeral began.

"In the ancient times this was done," said Sister Gianna Giovannangeli.

"That's true," said Sister Carla. "And you can see the wishes of the people. Can't you feel the love that the people have for him?"

A few feet away, a group of French teenagers tried to climb one of the stone obelisks at the piazza's entrance, until two elderly Italian women shooed them down with backward waves of their hands.

A Polish couple stretched out nearby on sleeping bags over a sewer grate, and people stepped over them to get to pallets of free water that had been brought to the square.

The gathering was as unceremonious as a music festival until the basilica's bell tolled.

Everyone - the Polish couple, the students, the nuns - then stood in rapt silence, hunched against a cool wind.

Even when readings were done in languages the auidence in Piazza Pia did not understand - portions were in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian and Polish - everyone solemnly stood and listened.

Rybarczyk spent the Mass leaning on a metal fence and holding a stake to which he had attached a gold-colored heart with a picture of his son kissing Pope John Paul's forehead during an earlier visit to Rome.

"Luck, it smiled on us that day," Rybarczyk said, looking at the picture of his son, Karol - named for the Polish cardinal who became John Paul II. "It was a blessing that I will be thankful for my whole life."

Midway through the ceremony, Pam Paulos slid through the crowd with her husband, two children and father hoping to steal a glance at the videoscreen.

Neither she nor her family is Catholic, and their trip from Seattle to Rome had been planned months earlier, yet they felt a need to be part of a gathering whose energy was felt throughout the city.

"We couldn't come to Rome and not be here," said Paulos. "Even if you're not Catholic you have to feel a loss, because of all the great things the man did."

The funeral lasted for nearly three hours, punctuated by organ and choral music that shook even distant ground.

Applause - the traditional Italian response to momentous events - began at the basilica and spread through the crowd like ripples in a pond, reaching Piazza Pia long after the image that touched it off was gone from the screen.

The end of the ceremony brought a change.

When the Papal Gentlemen lifted the pope's coffin for a final time, the people of Piazza Pia responded immediately in applause and cheers that continued until the body was carried up the steps of the church and turned around for a final nod to the citizens of Rome and the world.

Tears flowed from the sisters' eyes then, and from Rybarczyk's eyes, and from at least a few of the French teenagers'.

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