The Italian Almanac

a view of circus maximus

Italian News - April 9

Worried about possibly unmanageable crowds surging toward the Vatican, officials in Rome yesterday enlisted piazzas, monuments, and parks as alternative viewing spots for the ceremonies.

The Circus Maximus may once have occupied the gaudy center of ancient spectacle, but yesterday it played a more modern role: overflow seating for the funeral at St. Peter's across town. Tens of thousands of people slept, danced, and prayed on the Roman chariot course, now a long grassy bank surrounded by brick ruins, as they prepared to watch the Mass for Pope John Paul II on huge video screens erected by the city.

Fittingly for a pope often described as a rock star, the Circus came to resemble a Woodstock of the faithful, filled with tents and bedrolls of thousands of young pilgrims who arrived with nothing but a backpack and the willingness to stand in line for 12 hours, sleep on the grass, and then wake up for a nearly three-hour Mass.

The Italian civil protection corps, made up largely of volunteers from towns around the country, passed out blankets at night, along with tea, hot chocolate, and jam croissants for breakfast. One aid worker said there were ''extremely few problems -- lines for the toilets, a few sick people. And the dust."