The Guardia di Finanza are the smallest and most specialist of Italy’s three police forces and are usually on the trail of contraband goods, trafficked immigrants, fraudsters, tax evaders and con artists.
Controlling crowds and helping old ladies find public conveniences is not normally in their job description.
The Finanza have been drafted in to supplement the ranks of the regular police and crime squads to help keep Rome running smoothly during the frenetic build-up to the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the elaborate ceremony itself.
City authorities are faced with a massive organisational task as they prepare for the arrival of an estimated two million pilgrims between now and Friday’s funeral.
So far they have brought in almost 6,500 extra police; 5,000 devoted to public order duties and 1,500 to the protection of foreign delegations and diplomats who will also be escorted around the city by 800 motorcycle police.
Already, St Peter’s Square and the sweeping thoroughfare of Via della Conciliazione that leads to it are a maze of crush barriers as organisers try to herd pilgrims into groups of more manageable numbers.
Yesterday’s events, when the Pope’s remains were carried across the square to St Peter’s Basilica for the start of his public lying-in-state, provided a taster of how difficult that job will be.
Crushes were unavoidable and not even the generous distribution of free bottled water by the civil defence was enough to keep some of the heat-stricken pilgrims from fainting.
Church authorities are trying to ease the problem by regulating the flow of people into Rome, dividing the country’s dioceses into three groupings and asking senior clergy in each to lead their busloads of parishioners to the city only on their designated day.
Realistically, however, they know that many Italians, and practically all the overseas visitors, will make their way here independently, all prepared to do battle for lodgings, refreshments and places in queues.
Tented cities are being assembled in sports grounds around the city and almost a dozen public squares and thoroughfares at various points across the city are being designated viewing points where large screens are being erected to encourage people to watch the proceedings without cramming into St Peter’s Square.
Pressure has also been brought to bear on the transport unions who had planned strike action but now look certain to work, not just as normal, but overtime to keep a fleet of extra trains and buses on the move.
Security is the other big concern. Yesterday, the post boxes around St Peter’s were sealed off and army underwater units began patrolling the river Tiber.
Rome is accustomed to big public events and in recent years it has witnessed the Jubilee 2000 celebrations, the beatification of Mother Teresa and National Youth Day, all of which drew huge crowds.
The city has also hosted many politically sensitive gatherings, including high-level European Union talks and the visit of George Bush, so it is used to dealing with the demands of ensuring world leaders’ safety.
Dealing with a public gathering of unprecedented scale and the who’s who of world politics together at the same time, however, is a different class of challenge.