Scores of faithful flocked to a Rome hospital Wednesday where Pope John Paul II was being treated for respiratory problems, offering prayers, flowers and even singing a pop song for the sick pontiff.
The Gemelli Polyclinic has taken in John Paul so often that the hospital has been dubbed by the Italian press “The Third Vatican,” after the seat of the Holy See on St. Peter’s Square and the pope’s summer residence in the town of Castel Gandolfo.
Tuesday night, the pope was admitted to a suite on the 10th floor that includes a chapel, kitchen and sleeping quarters for his longtime personal aide, Polish Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.
“The 10th floor — where the papal apartments are located — is only partially closed,” said hospital spokesman Nicola Cerbino. “Those who need to be treated here still are. There’s no change for the hospital.”
The Gemelli Polyclinic is a vast Catholic teaching institution about 2½ miles from the Vatican. The 84-year-old pontiff has stayed there about a half-dozen times, starting in 1981 when he was critically wounded by a gunshot to the abdomen in an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square.
The hospital was under tight but discreet security Wednesday, with four police cars standing guard outside the building. Police officials have been tightlipped about measures taken to protect the pope, but a security force official at the scene said scores of policemen in plainclothes were deployed in and around the hospital complex.
News the pope had been hospitalized caused hordes of journalists to descend on the hospital. The lobby was crammed with cameras, TV spotlights and reporters, while others positioned themselves on a hill just outside the hospital compound — a spot that allowed them to have a view of the pope’s windows, which were open just a crack.
When papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls arrived at the hospital early Wednesday, police had to shield him from reporters shouting questions. Later, hospital officials decided that a room adjacent to the lobby could be used by the press, setting up a podium and a microphone for officials reading out a medical bulletin.
Roses and ‘Wonderwall’
Outside, pilgrims started pouring in. Polish pilgrims offered red and white roses, faithful prayed, and a group of 10 Australian students played the guitar and sang the song “Wonderwall” by British rock band Oasis just outside the hospital entrance.
Many of the pilgrims had come to Rome ahead of the pope’s Wednesday general audience, which was canceled.
“John Paul II is an exceptional personality, even when he is in pain and sick,” said Antonio Cecchini, a priest who works at the hospital to provide patients with spiritual assistance.