John Paul II, We love you!

“Saint Faustina, pray for us” sings a group of American students perched in a corner of the Via della Conciliazione, the main avenue leading up to St Peter’s Square. It’s been drizzling in Rome all morning but this hasn’t deterred the pilgrims. Yesterday’s calm is almost gone. The crowds have swelled almost overnight. They are everywhere, pouring out of the colonnades, queues spiralling in an ever widening circle around the square to get into St Peter’s basilica.

There are Polish flags everywhere, bobbing over the umbrellas and plastic rain slickers, while young Polish pilgrims sing songs with drums and tambourines. There are more different orders of nuns and religious than I have ever seen in one place at one time. People have taken their rucksacks, sleeping bags, mats, bottles of water with them on their backs. Although there are young and old, the number of young people who seem to be in the different groups is surprising, though given how much the late John Paul II did for the young it should probably not be.

Just from the languages I’m hearing on the streets it seems that the majority of foreign pilgrims are Poles, followed by the French, Spanish and Germans. There also a number of African pilgrims and I’ve spotted a couple of groups of young people from the Philippines. St Peter’s Basilica will be cleared for preparation from 13:00 and much of the area around will be closed. The religious tat sellers are having a field day. John Paul II’s face is everywhere – on posters around Rome – on mugs, flags, T-shirts.

There is no clear figure on the numbers. The Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apparently expects three million pilgrims while an insider told me Vatican officials are now expecting around two million pilgrims but that it is likely to be closer to 1.25 million pilgrims plus around 250,000 Romans.

At least 16 heads of state are attending the beatification and a Vatican official said that there were 87 delegations from around the world who were taking part in tomorrow’s ceremonies. Five of Europe’s reigning houses will be represented with the Duke of Gloucester fresh from the Royal Wedding, the Spanish Crown Prince Felipe with his wife, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, his wife and hereditary prince, the Prince of Liechtenstein and the King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor flew in from London this morning having attended the Royal Wedding yesterday while Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham and Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds were already in Rome yesterday.

Zimbabwe’s infamous President Robert Mugabe, who once had a stint in a seminary, has also travelled to Rome for the beatification, despite an EU travel ban.

The atmosphere is pretty amazing even though official events don’t start for another eight hours, with tonight’s prayer vigil in the Circo Massimo which will be led by the Vicar General of Rome Cardinal Agostino Vallini.The late pope’s communications director Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls will be speaking about working with Pope John Paul II, while Sister Marie Simon Pierre, the nun who was miraculously cured through the intercession of the late pope, will also give her testimony. Then eight Roman churches will be open all night for a White Night of Prayer. At 5:30am tomorrow St Peter’s Square will open for pilgrims attending the beatification.
Vatican Radio has released useful numbers for pilgrims, here