A Funeral Like No Other

By Wednesday afternoon in Vatican City, the weekend quiet of prayer and contemplation was gone as Italian police corralled the faithful into clusters separated by gaps of open space--a tactic to avoid the fatal crush of a stampede. The wait time to see Pope John Paul II's body was more than 24 hours. The crowd stood up to 20 abreast, many using umbrellas to shelter themselves from the unseasonably warm sun.

When President George W. Bush arrived around 10 p.m., the gridlock got worse. By the time his 50-car convoy arrived through a special Vatican entrance, those close enough to see the giant screens that flanked the long queues faced almost an hour delay while the president viewed the Holy Father's body. President Bush, his father and former president Bill Clinton were among an expected 200 heads of state and dignitaries who are descending on Rome for the Friday funeral of the pontiff. Not only were security forces extended to protect the leaders, but diplomats were in full force to try to ensure an incident-free funeral.

Among the most controversial attendees at the Friday morning service will be Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe who is breaking an EU travel ban to attend the funeral at Vatican City (which does not have an airport, but which has a convention with Italy to allow safe passage to anyone visiting the sovereign state.) Mugabe's visit highlights diplomatic concerns and questions now over seating arrangements inside St. Peter's Basilica where only invited diplomats and church figures will be allowed during the three-hour service and burial in the crypt. The Vatican has previously said it would not concern itself with politics in terms of seating and global issues. While it is unlikely that Mugabe will be seated next to the Blairs, for example, it is not inconceivable.

Since the pope's health began to decline last Thursday, the security and logistical situation in Rome has been under phenomenal stress in dealing with just the docile pilgrims and curious tourists who were here for the papal death and who are staying on and arriving for the period of mourning. Leading up to the funeral, Rome authorities have called in an additional 6,500 special security personnel to assist the Vatican's 100-man security force and the 200-strong Italian forces who are normally assigned to the Holy See. The total security detail will number more than 16,500 in Rome including special police, bomb experts, snipers and tiny Navy boats that will patrol the Tiber River. But travel experts say that as many as 4 million visitors are and will be arriving in the city by Friday, more than doubling the city's population, many of whom are staying for the funeral and may stay for the conclave that begins April 18.

The security dilemma is not restricted only to protect those in and around St. Peter's Square. President Bush and his delegation arrived a full 36 hours before the funeral and require hundreds of officers who have virtually "cocooned" his entourage. Italian authorities have said that their primary concern is not a terrorist attack given the relatively quick demise of the pope and the time it has generally taken to plan major attacks. But there are still potential problems: the last time President Bush visited Rome, in June 2004, an estimated 7,000 antiwar protestors filled the center of Rome with a giant march that effectively shut down the city.

Protecting the delegates is made more complicated by a Vatican law stating that only the Vatican special security forces, called the gendarmes, are allowed to carry weapons inside Vatican City--meaning that no leader's personal security team should be carrying weapons, though no one denies that these rules will almost certainly be broken under these circumstances.

In addition to the obvious security stress, there are other concerns in Rome. Area hospitals have called in extra staff to be on hand and to man medical tents round the clock. In the tiny Vatican City area, there are 15 temporary medical centers with more than 600 doctors and nurses and 220 ambulances at the ready. Railway stations have extended their hours and the Italian train system has added 43 extra trains a day through next week. In addition, the city has doubled the number of buses in and out of the Vatican area and has given incentives to taxi companies to effectively "carpool" or even offer free rides to diminish traffic. Walking on the sidewalks in town is slowed by the continuous flow of pedestrians walking in both directions. Rome's beltway is jammed with buses and cars of the faithful trying to arrive in town for the pope's funeral. Their arrival is complicated by the thousands of frustrated Romans trying to go and come from work.

Police trucks, fire trucks and ambulances are located throughout the city and in particular around the main monuments and places of interest. Military and police helicopters patrol the sky around the clock, and high above NATO jets patrol what is now a no-fly zone. "We tried to organize a jubilee in 48 hours" said Rome's mayor, Walter Veltroni. He has set up 11 maxi-screens in different parts of the city to allow the faithful who won't be able to reach Saint Peter's to watch the funeral broadcast live.

Even seemingly simple tasks like deliveries to restaurants inside the immediate zone have to be made on foot from major arteries, and cash machines around Vatican City have almost all dried up with no possibility for armored trucks to enter the area to refill them. Hotel rooms under 200 euros a night are gone, according to the National Tourist Board, and the city has called upon citizens to take in pilgrims. Tent camps have been set up at local universities and at the exposition hall outside the city center. Inside the ancient Circus Maximus at the foot of the Palatine Hill, igloolike tents have been set up to house and feed pilgrims who cannot find a place to stay. The base is now almost entirely filled with colorful camping tents that many pilgrims have purchased or had brought with them. Some churches have opened their doors to let the pilgrims set up camp in the foyers. Many others are simply sleeping on the streets of Rome and along the river in tents and makeshift campgrounds.

Throughout the week tales of compassion and anger were told. At one point a family who had arrived from Mexico with three exhausted children were reportedly ushered to the front of the line as the crowd applauded their devotion. At another point, Italian press reported that an Italian tour guide who promised her paying customers that she would help them cut in line was pelted with water bottles and physically stopped by some of Italy's elite Carabinieri military police who had been summoned.

The goal now is to clear St. Peter's Square by Thursday evening so they can fence it off, clean it up, set up metal detectors, move portable toilets and begin the monumental task of reopening the piazza at 3:30 a.m. Friday to allow people in for the 10 a.m. funeral Friday morning.

While the scene around the Vatican is surreal at best, the rest of the city is eerily quiet. Streets like the viale Trastevere and the via Terme di Caracalla which are normally packed at midday are trickling with traffic. Grocery stores are devoid of clients and most of the streets outside the center are vacant except for the thousands of empty tourist buses that are parked all over the city. It is almost as if the event at the Vatican has sucked the life out of the rest of Rome.