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At St. Peter's Square

Under Windows, Pilgrims, Tourists Mill About and Pray

Thousands Congregate at Historic Plaza, Brought Out by Duty, Grief and Curiosity

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page A11

VATICAN CITY, April 1 -- As crowds of pilgrims and tourists flowed in and out of St. Peter's Square on Friday, almost everyone gazed up at the shuttered windows of the apartment where Pope John Paul II lay gravely ill.

But Maximo Gonzalez Gomez, a grocer and history buff from Mexico City, had his eyes squarely on the Bronze Door to the side of St. Peter's Basilica. "I know people look at the apartment to see if they can see anything and perhaps to be closer to the pope," Gonzalez said. "But if they want the latest news, it's the door they should watch."

Faithful shout "Long live the pope!" before dawn today in St. Peter's Square. Some took snapshots of the windows from which, for 26 years, John Paul has greeted pilgrims. (Gregorio Borgia -- AP)

_____Catholics Pray_____
Photo Gallery: Catholics across the world pray for the ailing Pope John Paul II as he nears death.
Video: Cardinal McCarrick remembers the pope.
Video: Catholic religous leaders urge the faithful to pray for Pope John Paul II.
Video: Mass is held at Washington's Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
Video: The Post's Robin Wright shares her experiences covering the pope with washingtonpost.com's Terry Neal.
_____Live Video_____
Live Video From St. Peter's Square
_____More From The Post_____
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Traditionally, the formidable door is shut when a pope dies. Tradition, however, is not always followed. In 1978, when John Paul's two predecessors died within a month of each other, the doors remained open. In any case, the door stays open only until 8 p.m. When night fell Friday, it was closed as usual, and Gonzalez was tired and went home.

For most of the day, crowds filled only a third of the 17th-century plaza. By midnight however, the throng had swelled -- a mix of the curious and distraught.

The plaza became Italy's town square. Some wished for his recovery. Some prayed for God to take the pope to His side.

Some ran rosaries through their fingers, some fiddled with cell phones, and some took snapshots of the windows from which, for 26 years, John Paul has greeted pilgrims and given blessings in a voice that was once booming but is now silenced.

Some onlookers voiced apocalyptic fears. "With so much conflict in the world, this is not the time to lose a figure like the pope," said Estella Caffarelli, a teacher from Rome who thumbed her prayer book. "Until recently, I wasn't a practicing Catholic. He taught me how to pray."

Others regarded the window-side vigil as their duty. Bruno Fiocca, an accountant from Rome, clutched a rosary and explained that he would stay in the plaza until the pope died. "John Paul has carried so many people in his heart who can't be here," he said. "We want to thank him."

For Francesco Gatano, a college student, it was a family affair. "The Holy Father is like my father," he said. "He has always been close to the young. Now, he needs us. It's our turn."

Others were drawn to the square by simple curiosity. "If you live in Rome, this is what you do when a pope is dying," said Franco d'Andrea, an art historian. "It's like a day in the country."

RAI state television dedicated hours of programming to panel discussions with priests, bishops and lay people who had met the pope. Other stations showed footage of the pope holding services at St. Peter's; reading messages in Mexico, Jerusalem, the United States and around the rest of the world; being thronged by young people or skiing or hiking briskly in the mountains with his athlete's posture.

His illness even brought Italian politics to a halt. Campaigning for regional elections this weekend was suspended.

On Friday, politicians -- left and right, Catholic and not -- attended a special evening Mass at St. John Lateran Basilica, the diocesan church presided over by the pope in his capacity as bishop of Rome.

Newspaper commentators criticized Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for appearing on a late-night talk show Thursday, which went uninterrupted while other channels covered news of the pope.

Reporters from state-owned stations, as well as the network owned by Berlusconi, complained they were told not to report on the pope's condition while Berlusconi was on the air.

On the other hand, soccer, Italy's national sport, was not derailed. A game between Livorno and Lazio, the province surrounding Rome, went on as scheduled, although star players took time out to offer televised tributes to the pope and urge fans to pray.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company