Pilgrims begin their benign invasion of Vatican City

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The Independent Online

Three hours before the body of Pope John Paul II was to be brought to St Peter's Basilica for public viewing, the waiting crowd was already 100,000 strong. By Friday, the day of the pontiff's funeral, the number of pilgrims in Vatican City is expected to be closer to two million. A benign invasion of Rome has started.

Each day the piazzas become fuller. Each day, the planeloads and trainloads carrying the faithful continue to arrive. Somehow the city will cope. But no one has quite worked out how.

A huge campsite has been set up on the outskirts of Rome to accommodate them, a tent city for the faithful. New bus routes and timetables are being devised. A special shuttle to and from the central railway station is about to start. But the logistics of this week of mourning are formidable, to say the least.

As a bright April sun shone yesterday, 44,000 bottles of water were handed out by volunteers between Via della Conciliazione and Via della Traspontina. City authorities say the service will be provided for the rest of the week. But there will be 10 times the number of eager takers.

Four thousand police officers and carabinieri were deployed to oversee the crowds after the Pope's body was removed, along with 600 medical staff. That number is likely to increase as the week goes on.

Then there is the world's media. More than 180 media organisations from across the globe are in Rome, including al-Jazeera and Chinese state television.

Above all, there is the sea of pilgrims, some grieving, some almost in celebratory mood. In St Peter's Square, thousands sat on cobblestones, protected by umbrellas from the sun, singing and sharing food as well as memories of the man who has dominated Catholicism for the past quarter of a century. Impromptu memorials sprang up, with street lamps covered in flowers.

Donato Guida and his wife Teresa Franco were among the first few thousand who lined up for the viewing, having travelled all night by train from the southern city of Lecce. Mrs Franco had been overwhelmed by the sun and they were shading themselves on the side of the broad Via della Conciliazione, jammed with pilgrims fenced in by police barriers. "He left such a pain in our hearts," said Guida. "We'd like to see him."

Vincenzo Guslisano, 38, from Sicily, said: "I can't wait to see him. It's been a long road to here, to Rome and this point in my life, and I owe him this tribute."

Others thought it would be hard to look at the lifeless body of the man who so vigorously led the world's 1.1 billion Catholics for so long. "When I stand in front of him his purity shows me all my sins," said Liliana, a housewife from Rome who declined to give her surname. "I'll use my time in front of him to ask him to pray for my forgiveness because I know he's next to God now."