Faithful submit to crowd control for vivid Vatican spectacle

The mood in St Peter’s Square was not dampened by hours of queuing

Taoiseach Enda Kenny meets Pope Francis at St Peter’s Square in Rome after the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny meets Pope Francis at St Peter’s Square in Rome after the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire.


It was the day of the fold-up chair and rucksack in Rome yesterday as more than 800,000 pilgrims squeezed their way into St Peter’s Square and other city centre squares for the canonisation of two of the most loved and most important popes of the 20th century, John XXIII and John Paul II.

Those determined to have a front-row seat in St Peter’s Square itself had to work hard for the privilege, with many queuing all night long.

By early yesterday morning, some were looking tired and dishevelled in a square that at one point looked like an eve-of-battle site with weary pilgrims sitting around on rugs and fold-up chairs amid paper rubbish.

The city of Rome and the Holy See, however, know a thing or two about organising this size of jamboree. Even before the 2½-hour-long ceremony had begun, trucks were already cleaning corners of St Peter’s .

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

Such crowd control 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 told us that she had queued all night, taking seven hours to travel approximately half a kilometre.

Bright and cheery
Notwithstanding the slow pace, however, the pilgrim mood was generally both patient and calm. Tuay, a Vietnamese Catholic who had travelled down from Düsseldorf with 200 compatriots, cheerfully told The Irish Times he had taken up his position in the queue at 11pm on Saturday. He had not slept a wink, he said, but he looked and sounded bright and cheery.

It was a day that began early for many. Just off Piazza del Risorgimento, close to St Peter’s, one barman was sweating at six o’clock in the morning as he rushed about trying to get his bar set up for the day.

There were so many customers he had no time to get all his street chairs and tables out for business. From the hundreds of cornetti cakes lined up at the bar, it was clear that this was one innkeeper expecting to be very busy.

For even if Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, complained on Saturday that the organisation of the canonisations would 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: first, many of the pilgrims have stayed for a full week, beginning with the Easter celebrations; second, not surprisingly, many hotels and tour operators have raised prices by anything from 25 per cent to 150 per cent.

As for the ceremony itself, it was a sumptious spectacular concelebrated by 6,000 priests including not just Pope Francis, but also his predecessor, a frail-looking Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. This was a celebration which bore witness not only to two giants of the 20th century, but also to someone who already looks like a giant of the 21st century – Francis himself.

International delegations
It took the pope a good half hour or more at the end of the ceremony to meet all the movers and shakers of the 80-plus international delegations – people such as the king and queen of Spain; the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, representing the queen; French prime minister Manuel Valls; Italian president Giorgio Napolitano; Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski; former Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa; European Commission president José Manuel Barroso; and, of course, our own Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The “Francesco” effect is being felt worldwide.