The folks down this way are mighty happy when Pope John Paul II is back home after his world tours. They've become very fond of him in the last year. They also admire him mightly as a tourist attraction.
In fact, Pope John Paul II has become a bigger attraction than the Colosseum.
"We long believed that our antiquities -- the Colosseum, the Forum, the ancient art -- were our biggest drawing card," said a woman official in the tourism industry, sighing and smiling happily. "Now we give credit to Pope John Paul."
She checked with the Vatican and said about 30,000 visitors come to Rome each Wednesday just to see the Pope. The crowds have become so big that two audiences -- a double-header yet -- are held each week, one in the usual "audience hall," which holds 15,000 people, and another in St. Peter's Square.
How does this compare with the drawing power of other popes? Nobody was willing to say, officially. But one man said Pope Paul VI had no need to hold two audiences a week and that not even the beloved Pope John XXIII outdrew Pope John Paul II.
The Italians have taken the pope to their hearts. Said the tourism woman: "He's wonderful, an intellectual, a man of great vitality." She smiled and sighed again.
Now, one must not be deceived. The pope's surge of popularity hasn't resulted in everything being sweet and lovely. His presence has created serious traffic jams. On Wednesdays, the tour buses bearing pilgrims, plus taxis and private cars, fill the streets around St. Peter's, and city drivers can't negotiate regular routes. The result is a couple of hours of chaos.
But, then, the Romans are not strangers to chaos, and merely shrug their shoulders when city officials complain to Vatican officials about the traffic density and get nothing but a shrug of shoulders in return.
"Nothing can be done," a local man said.