Rome gets ready for expectant masses

You’re expecting hundreds of thousands of guests.

Rome gets ready for expectant masses

You don’t know where they’re coming from or when they’ll arrive. You don’t even know the date of the celebration.

And heaven only knows the name of the man being feted.

Planning for the moment when the next pope is proclaimed to the world, and for the installation ceremony a few days later, is a big-time guessing game. And that adds up to an ungodly logistical headache for the city of Rome.

When white smoke pours out of the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, throngs of Romans will drop what they’re doing and race to St Peter’s Square to cheer the new pope when he steps out onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. If the next pontiff hails from Italy, thousands can be expected to pack trains to the capital.

Then there are all the foreigners flying into town to capture the historic moment — an influx that may become overwhelming if cardinals break with tradition and elect the first pope from Latin America, home to 40% of the world’s Catholics.

A tented field hospital will go up in a square near the Vatican today ahead of the start of the conclave tomorrow, ensuring emergency medical treatment will be just around the corner if any pilgrim feels ill or stumbles in the rush to glimpse the new pope.

While there are no other special plans for the conclave itself, Rome authorities have a detailed game plan for the papal installation that takes place a few days after the pope is elected. The audience for that momentous event in St Peter’s Square will include presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders, and tens of thousands of pilgrims, along with throngs of accidental tourists who happen to be in town.

Thousands of extra police will be summoned to duty to keep streets safe and unclogged. Officers on motorised rubber dinghies will glide down the Tiber, ready to dive into the river’s murky waters to pick out anything suspicious.

As soon as the installation date is known, about 500 civil protection volunteers will receive calls to spring into action.

They know the drill for the big day.

Since Benedict XVI gave two weeks’ notice last month for his resignation — the first in 600 years — there have been a few “trial runs” of crowd control and security in St Peter’s Square.

The next few days, though, will be the real deal.

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