Canonisation: A day for the fold-up chair and raincoat

Rome welcomes over 800,000 pilgrims for sainthood ceremony

 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrives at the canonisation ceremony of  John XXIII and John Paul II  in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrives at the canonisation ceremony of John XXIII and John Paul II in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters


On a grey, dull morning that threatens rain, it is another day of the fold-up chair and rucksack as some of the 800,000 plus pilgrims in town this weekend squeeze their way into St Peter’s Square for this morning’s canonisation of two of the most loved and most important Popes of the 20th century, John XXIII and John Paul II.

Those pilgrims determined to have a front row seat, in St Peter’s Square itself, have had to work for the privilege with many of them queuing all night. Understandably, they look just a little dishevelled and tired in a square that at one point this morning looked like an eve of battle sight with weary pilgrims sitting around on rugs and fold-up chairs amidst a sea of paper rubbish.

The organisation is such, however, that the clean-up began even before the start of this three hour long ceremony of “Four Popes” - two about-to-be saints as well as Pope Francis and his immediate predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI - with municipal street cleaner trucks making their way round parts of the square.

When a visibly frail 87-year-old Benedict stepped out in front of the Basilica to take his seat in the front row, he produced the first round of applause of the day as thousands of pilgrims and cardinals greeted him warmly.

The organisation of the crowd flow into the square was equally impressive, with yellow-bibbed volunteers linking arms to form a human chain which allowed the pilgrims to move forward only in limited, safe numbers.

With perhaps 250,000 of the 800,000 pilgrims wanting to get into the square, crowd control needed to be strict but it was inevitably very tedious.

One Swiss woman passing by the permanent press centre on Via della Conciliazione at the entrance into St Peter’s Square said she had queued all night, taking seven hours to travel approximately half a kilometre. Notwithstanding the slow pace, however, the pilgrim mood is generally both patient and calm.

Tuay, a Vietnamese Catholic who has travelled down from Dusseldorf in Germany with a group of 200 compatriots, cheerfully says he took up his position in the queue at 11.00pm last night. He had not slept a wink but he looked and sounded bright and cheery.

It has been a day that began early for a lot of people. Just off Piazza del Risorgimento, close to St Peter’s, one barman was already sweating at 6.00am as he rushed about trying to get his bar set up for the day.

Already there were so many customers that he had no time to get all his street chairs and tables out for business. Looking too at the hundreds of cornetti (brioche) lined up at the bar, it is clear that this is one inn-keeper who expects to do very good business today.

For even if Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino complained yesterday that the organisation of the canonisations will cost Rome €7 million, the reality is that this nationwide invasion of pilgrims represents about €230 million worth of business, according to small business confederation Confcommercio. That calculation is based on two considerations - firstly, many of the pilgrims have stayed for most of a week which began with the Easter celebrations and secondly, not surprisingly, many hotels and tour operators have raised prices by anything from 25 per cent to 150 per cent.

As he prepared for the ceremony, too, Pope Francis has a word for the ranks of the world’s media gathered in Rome this weekend. In the Corriere Della Canonizzazione, Francis urges the media to avoid giving “an incomplete, distorted picture of man, one closed to authentic values”.

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