In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, the Church in Italy is expecting “tens of thousands” of faithful to gather in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday in a show of support and solidarity with the Holy Father, and for the purification of the Church.

Lay groups and families from dioceses up and down the country are expected to gather in the square from 11am, an hour before Pope Benedict XVI recites the Regina Coeli. They will be led in prayer by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference.

“We expect lay groups and individual families to come from all over Italy by bus, train or other means, each group organizing themselves to participate in the Regina Coeli,” said Paola Dal Toso, Secretary General of Italy’s National Advisory Council of Lay Groups (CNAL), a coordinating body of 68 movements and associations from every corner of Italy.

In a statement, CNAL said those participating “intend to place in the hands of Mary our fidelity to the Holy Father for the good of the Church in which we experience mercy, the only adequate response to the need for justice which emerges from the heart of each person at this time.”

Cardinal Bagnasco has thanked the organizers, saying that such a spontaneous initiative of the laity represents a “genuine sensus fidei [sense of the faithful] of Christians who know well where they are and who to follow.” 

He told today’s Avvenire newspaper: “The people appreciate what this Pope is doing for the Church and intend to express their closeness, not because Benedict XVI feels intimidated, alone or in danger, but because they want, with this simple gesture, to immediately join themselves with the work of self-purification of the Church which is always necessary and urgent today.”

Asked what makes this gesture unique, Cardinal Bagnasco replied: “I hope that it’s primarily a sign for all believers. Certainly it will serve to rediscover the unity of the Church around Peter.”

The initiative also has the strong backing of Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, whose office has set up a Facebook page called “Rome for the Pope!” appealing to all Romans to become involved. Alemanno said: “I support this initiative as a believer and as mayor of Rome, a city that has a special bond of gratitude and devotion to the Holy Father to whom we wish to witness our support and filial affection at a time of difficulty for the Church.”