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Crowds at John Paul II's beatification test the faithful

Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images

Pilgrims attend the ceremony for the beatification of Pope John Paul II at St. Peter's Square May 1.

By Claudio Lavanga
     NBC Rome

On the day John Paul II officially joined the blessed in heaven, some of the pilgrims went through hell to see him beatified.

An estimated 1.5 million people from all over the world descended on Rome for the beatification of the late pontiff, but an unfortunate combination of bad timing, even worse planning, and uncontrollable exuberance made May 1 a day to remember 
--  and not for all the right reasons.

That something was not right became clear Saturday night at about 7 p.m., when the area surrounding the media platform set-up for journalists at the end of Via della Conciliazione, the avenue leading to St. Peter's Square, started looking like a Catholic Woodstock. Pilgrims wanting to grab a first row spot ahead of Sunday's mass set up their sleeping bags in the middle of the street, blocking the whole area to traffic.


The authorities made matters worse by closing down Via della Conciliazione for security reasons, creating a bottleneck that swelled faster than the Tiber river after heavy rains. To journalists, walking back to their hotels became a personal 'Via Crucis,' as the Station of the Cross is known in Latin.

When they came back at 5 a.m., the scene was apocalyptic: Some took an hour to progress 200 meters, others gave up altogether.  A few must have been tempted to drop their broadcasting gear to embark on a pilgrim to the Holy Land to redeem their sins. 

The gates to St. Peter's Square opened earlier than expected, but the sheer number of pilgrims who wanted to be part of the biggest event staged by the Vatican since the funeral of John Paul II overwhelmed a police force that looked on as people tried to force their way to the front row, swearing in multitudes of different languages and dropping like flies under the strain of the crowd and the scorching May heat. 

The inadequate numbers of viewing screens didn't help, forcing scores of pilgrims to break through the barriers of the media compound and watch the event from the journalists' platforms and the small television sets in the satellite trucks.

After the mass, the mess.

Thousands of pilgrims pushed their way to St. Peter's Square trying to join the queue to see and pray over John Paul's coffin. As it wasn't immediately clear where the entrance to the basilica would be, the queue started looking almost immediately like the clogged check-in area of a low-cost airline, only a lot bigger. Some were asking the police for directions, other relied on journalists, most prayed they were on the right path. One wrong turn in a crowd of that size would be enough to test anyone's faith.