I've never seen the city like this. Everything is just strange. Exhausted from travelling across Europe to arrive back here just as the bells began to toll for the Pontiffs death, I eschewed heading to St Peter's Square last in favour of a (short) night's sleep and a visit to the Vatican after Mass this morning.
After I rose, I took coffee in a bar and stolled over to the Lateran Basilica. It was quite in that part of town. The basilica itself was virtually deserted, the only sign that something was wrong was the Vatican flag at half-mast over the gateway of the adjoining Lateran palace, now home to the Cardinal Vicar of Rome and his offices. Unusually and unneccesarily two representatives of the Italian 'Guardia di Finanzia' (Financial Police) stood guard outside. Were they expecting the Vicariate to be looted in the interregunm?
After a few brief prayers before the Blessed Sacrament and the heads of SS. Peter and Paul I headed for my regular Sunday Mass. On my way, I noticed that the area around the Lateran was exceptionally quiet except for knots of tearful nuns heading towards the Vatican.
After Mass I took the Metro to Ottoviano and walked to St Peter's Square. I was coming against the crowds streaming out of the Square after the Mass and midday Regina Coeli. There were a few camera crews interviewing passersby and the staff at the Osservatore Romano news-stand explained that they'd not have any more papers until 4.30pm this afternoon. Souvenir shops were selling huge numbers of postcards of John Paul II as people sought something to remember him and this day by. I squeezed past the crowds into the square and found it fuller than I expected. People were streaming into the basilica and looking up at the Apostolic palace. Hymns were sung, prayers were said and people wept. I've never seen so many tears in public. I like to think of myself as good with deaths, but John Paul was very special to me. An anecdote recounted, a glimpse of a TV screen and a lump rises in one's throat.
Having prayed for him in that square where I have seen and heard him so many times I headed to one of my favourite restaurants for lunch. I stopped on the way and bought a few newspapers. There was little other news inside. This is the story of stories. The most important man in the world has died and the world is amazed to find itself unexpectedly decapitated.
As I travelled to lunch on the Metro a young woman with a rosary bracelet meekly approached me. She saw that I had a newspaper, could she have a look? I gladly handed her a copy. She looked at the front cover and sniffed. A seat freed up, she sat down and began to read. Before long the tissues were out and she was dabbing her eyes. As she read she got progressively more and more upset. When I got to my stop I couldn't ask for my paper back. She spotted me leaving and offered it to me, but I told her to keep it. That, at least, brought a smile through the tears. It's been one of those days when strangers approach one another and little kindnesses are freely exchanged.
As I ate my pasta I was glued to the TV in the restaurant. There's nothing else on TV - the events in Rome today and John Paul's life and pontificate. A montage of images of this once sturdy man hiking, playing with children, encouraging the young and bringing a little kindness and light to some sick people in hospital, then shots of the lying in state in the Sala Clementina. I had intended making my way leisurely back to the Vatican to buy a copy of the Osservatore Romano, but unexpectedly received a summons to hail a taxi and go to the Vatican Press Office for a TV interview. I'm not famous or well-informed - rather it seems that any easily contactable Roman resident is being pestered to say a few words for the world's media. I got in the taxi and made my way to the Via della Conciliazione which leads into St Peter's Square. As I made my way to meet the journalist, I was stopped by another camera crew who wanted a few words - until they learned that I wasn't American. Having answered a few brief questions from the journalist I made my way to the news-stand. It was like a siege. Crowds pressed in on the stand and asked when the Osservatore Romano would arrive. 'Un mezz'ora' ('Half an hour') was the inevitiable response, one that was repeated every 5 minutes for an hour and a half. The crowd got bigger and bigger and the staff (surrounded by a mob 8 or 9 rows deep at this stage) got more and more jumpy looking. I'd never seen Vatican security and the Carabineri act as protection detail for a news stand before. The crowd was there so long that those in the front row were on first name terms with the staff and there were many exchanges of Roman wit in the local dialect between the harassed workers and the increasingly frustrated crowd. By dint of patience I managed to make my way to a good position and when the papers finally arrived I was able to secure a copy for myself and for a friend.
Then I stolled back along the Via della Conciliazione and it was unlike I had ever seen it - even during the Jubilee. There were first-aid stands, dozens of camera crews, portable bathroom facilities and crowds of people. It was sunny and plesant and but for the circumstances there would have been a party mood. Instead there is a very different athmosphere about the city. It seems every policeman, prison officer, fireman and customs officer has been drafted in to help with crowd control. Tourists and locals alike freely approach strangers with questions - 'Do you speak English? When will the funeral be? When can we see his body?' There is an air of sadness, but also that colouring of hope that the realisation that a man strong in faith has gone to meet his maker at a ripe old age. There is also an awareness that is is an important time - the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. There is a palpable awareness that history is in the making, that a great man has left us and that what happens over the next month will have greater consequences than we can entirely grasp. We have not had a conclave in 27 years and we don't know quite what to expect of the process itself and can't imagine who will emerge to fill the great man's shoes. Mostly however there is a sense of loss, of loneliness, of sorrow that one we care for more than we realised has gone away.