VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - St. Peter’s Square was packed ahead of Sunday’s canonization of two of the 20th century’s great popes but hustling tour guides and a hint of the fairground were reminders that it will be a show as well as a solemn ceremony.
More than a million people are expected in and around the square to see Pope Francis declare as saints John XXIII, the Italian pontiff who launched the modernizing Second Vatican Council in 1962, and John Paul II, the revered Pole who led the Church for almost 27 years before his death in 2005.
Groups of pilgrims from Poland to Paraguay have come to attend the ceremony, drawn partly by the appeal of Francis, who has injected fresh enthusiasm into many Catholics since his appointment just over a year ago. The fame of the two popes being canonized has also attracted the faithful.
“I feel very happy because both of them inspire us,” said Father Emmanuel Emeka, a priest from Nigeria. “I think both of them have a lot to teach us.”
As has been true since Christian pilgrims began arriving in Rome more than 1,500 years ago, religious devotion exists side by side with the excitement of a holiday despite gloomy weather.
Tour guides in colored T shirts offered bus tours of the city and promised to get groups into Saint Peter’s Basilica without the need for long queuing. Beggars circled wide-eyed tourists from as far away as Africa or Japan.
Alfredo Chiarelli, one of a small group of street merchants known as “urtisti,” Italian for people who stop you on the street, has been busy selling religious souvenirs.
He engages curious tourists who stop to look at his tray of crucifixes, medallions and special rose-scented rosaries, his biggest seller.
“It’s Pope Francis who has done this, he’s really got through to people,” he said, adding that the surge of interest in Francis had helped make up for pressure from cheaper Chinese-made wares and tighter spending in the economic downturn.
So far, most people have been interested in images of the Argentinian-born pope and articles connected with John Paul II, whose death brought huge crowds to Saint Peter’s chanting “Santo subito!”, calling for him to be made a saint immediately.
John XXIII, sometimes known as the “Good Pope” due to his friendly, humorous character, is less sought after by casual passers-by. “Most young people have no idea who John XXIII was anymore,” Chiarelli says, sounding slightly regretful.
For those unable to pack into Saint Peter’s on Sunday, 18 huge television screens will be set up around Rome, with reinforced police and paramedical teams deployed around the city to handle crowds boosted by around a million foreign visitors.
“I always knew that our pope was a saint. Now it’s only going to be official,” said Piotr Kurylo, a Polish endurance runner who ran all the way to Rome to attend the ceremony. “Everything he did in his life always made him a saint.”
For thousands of others, special trains and planes have been laid on and many people are planning to spend Saturday night in churches that will remain open all night, praying rather than sleeping. For more earthly needs, authorities have installed 980 chemical lavatories and plan to distribute 4 million bottles of water over the weekend to keep the crowds cool.
The local Rome daily Il Messaggero reported that many bars and restaurants in the area around Saint Peter’s planned to shut their doors to avoid being overwhelmed in the crush. With most of the city’s hotels booked out, police were cracking down on improvised bed and breakfasts set up specially for the occasion.
The mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, said there were no signs of any security problems.
Additional reporting by Eleanor Biles and Iona Serrapica; Editing by Stephen Powell