VATICAN CITY — Tens of thousands of mourners continue to brave long lines in order to walk past Pope John Paul II’s body in St. Peter’s Basilica where it was laid in state on Monday and will remain until late Thursday.
NBC News’ Campbell Brown describes the mixed emotions of pilgrims of all faiths as they patiently wait to pay their last respects to the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Who are the pilgrims that are lining up to see the pope lie in state? Nuns, priests, Italians, non-Italians, people from all over the world?
They are mostly Italians. We have found a few Americans in the crowd, but by far the largest number are Italians.
You do see members of the church, but by and large it's families. It’s a lot of families. I was surprised by the number of small children because of the wait involved and how long people are out there. But, there are lots of little kids.
We have asked parents why they brought these little kids out given the crowd, the tight space, the weather, and the lack of water. People keep telling us that it is such a historic event and that they want their children to be part of this.
The crowd is made up of a lot of Romans, but also people from out of town and other parts of the country, as well as a lot of Europeans, and many people on pilgrimage. Also, because of the time of year, you also have a lot of people on spring break, who were here and it was coincidental that they are here during this time. They are all saying that it is wonderful for them to be able to be a part of this.
What is the mood of people waiting in line?
I have to say, I was really surprised about how calm people are about handling the wait because what they’ve done is cordoned off the main boulevard. So, it really is very tight. We were in the crowd at one point and you can’t even turn around. It is literally shoulder-to-shoulder people.
As they get closer to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica, people are very joyous. People are chanting, clapping, singing.
The mood changes drastically as people go inside the basilica because they are so reverential of the place, the event, and what’s happening. It is very somber and very sad.
Most everyone that we talk to coming out of the basilica is in tears.
What do you think has been the most difficult part of the wait?
The wait is four- to four-and-a-half-hours long. It was most difficult, I think, for people through the night. The temperature is unusually cold for this time of year. So, police were out passing out blankets, bottles of water, trying to help people keep warm because they really did wait through the night.
The Vatican only closed the basilica for about an hour and a half over the course of the night. They said they were going to close it for about three hours each night to do maintenance work and keep it clean, and then reopen in the morning. But given the enormity of the crowd, they only closed it for an hour and a half last night.
So, it was through the night that people seemed to have the most difficulty. Today, I was surprised, the crowd seems very patient. We talked to some people that were going through for their second time. So, there is real dedication.
Are all the people there part of the religious faithful or are there some gawkers that are just there because it is seen as an historic event?
There are a limited number of just tourists or gawkers. The majority are the "faithful" – but not necessarily Catholic.
We talked to people of all faiths. Many viewed the pope as just this inspiring religious leader in a broader sense. Also [they see him] as an example of someone they especially want to teach their children about and to give honor to the inspiration that he was to all faiths.
The crowd is mostly Italians and mostly Catholic, but we have met people from all over the world and of all faiths. When we talk to them about why they are there, they say it’s because he was this man who transcended the Catholic Church in terms of his effect on people. He is seen as a Christian inspiration for all.
Vatican City is a country unto itself, what is going on in the rest of Rome? Is the city absorbing all of the people?
They are trying. You get the sense from officials in Rome that they are a bit overwhelmed. Mostly it’s a housing issue.
Around the Vatican it’s extraordinarily well organized because they are used to such big events. If you think about it, the pope did make appearances every Wednesday and every Sunday, so they are accustomed to huge crowds in the square, certainly not of this magnitude, but huge crowds.
Housing seems to be the most troubling issue and the biggest challenge. One of the problems is that people are basically pitching tents wherever they want. So, officials in the city have tried to set up makeshift camps in certain areas and fairgrounds where they can try to assert some control over where they are setting up cots and tents. People are arriving and essentially plopping down, which has police somewhat concerned — in part because of the security issues also.
Two hundred heads of state are due here for the funeral. So, the area around Vatican City will become increasingly tighter in terms of security. They don’t want to have a situation where people are basically sleeping in the street, so to speak.
Rome is usually a very vibrant, busy city; has the city taken on a mournful tone?
Shops are open, restaurants are open. The city is by no means closed down. But, obviously the city’s entire focus is on what is happening here at the Vatican now and trying to accommodate crowds like they’ve never seen here before.
Rome is a major city, so people are going about their lives. That said, you turn on the TV and all you will see is coverage of the pope. This is all people are talking about. Posters have gone up throughout the city honoring the pope. It is everywhere, you feel it everywhere.
Campbell Brown is an NBC News correspondent and the co-anchor of Weekend Today.