Rome's Newest Tourist Attraction: Pope Benedict

VATICAN CITY — It is one of the main topics of conversation at Rome's coffee bars, restaurants and hotels, and with the city's taxi drivers, travel agents and tour guides: the massive numbers of visitors filling the city's piazzas and churches, art galleries and Roman ruins.

After all, it is mid-autumn, the weather fluctuates between glorious Indian summer days and torrential downpours and the “high season” for tourists ended two months ago. And yet they come.

A principal attraction for many visitors is Pope Benedict XVI.

The Pope, early in his pontificate, made it clear to close collaborators that he did not want to be the focal point for pilgrims in Rome. He hoped, rather, that visitors would come to Rome to increase their knowledge of the Church, to see the tombs of the apostles, martyrs and founders of religious orders and congregations, and to visit and pray at the patriarchal basilicas, especially St. Peter's.

Visitors to the Vatican see it differently. For Catholics, in particular, Benedict is the visible head of the universal Church. He is the Successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ. No small matter for a Catholic — and so they come to see him.

A survey done for the Italian weekly magazine, L'Espresso, six months after Benedict's election to the papacy on April 19, showed that the new Pope — though not termed “charismatic” — is viewed by Italians as very “straightforward,” as having an extremely “understandable” way of expressing himself and, though called “conservative,” is seen as “very open to dialogue.”

Surpassing John Paul

Statistics released along with the L'Espresso survey show that the Holy Father, from May through September 2005, has seen more than twice the number of people as his predecessor, John Paul II, did in the same period of 2004. Indeed, Benedict has welcomed more than 410,000 people to Wednesday audiences and 600,000 to the Sunday Angelus, compared to 194,000 for audiences and 262,000 at the Angelus for Pope John Paul.

Why the startling difference in figures?

What the public began to see over six months of appearances at weekly audiences and the Sunday Angelus was the softer, gentler, compassionate side of an innately humble man whom the media had spent years describing as “rigid,” “doctrinaire” and “God's watchdog.” They gradually witnessed the transformation of a shy person, someone reluctant to be in the limelight, into someone becoming used to the glare of flashbulbs and the applause of amazingly large crowds.

Religious Sister of Mercy Anthony Mary Diago works at the Bishops’ Office for U.S. Visitors to the Vatican, located in central Rome at the Casa Santa Maria, the site of the original North American College. Every Tuesday afternoon, Sister Anthony Mary, together with the office director, Msgr. Roger Roensch, and North American College seminarians who volunteer their time, welcome hundreds of Americans who have requested tickets to papal audiences. In so doing, they have their pulse on the Americans coming to visit the Vatican.

“The enormous media coverage of Pope John Paul's funeral,” said Sister Anthony Mary, “and the indescribable crowds who came to Rome to see him, to participate in the funeral, to learn more about the Church, to see the election of Pope Benedict, all this awakened many people to the Catholic faith, awakened many Catholics to their faith. People came to Rome by the millions. And they are still coming in amazing numbers — to see Pope John Paul's tomb, but also to see the new Pope.

“It is a great gift to the Church,” added Sister Anthony Mary, “to have these pilgrims come because they are fascinated by the office of pope. We talk to people every week who tell us they are here to see the Pope, to discover the roots of the Church, of their Catholic faith.”

Rome's Bella Figura

Many taxi drivers, restaurateurs and hotel employees credit the large numbers of people who come to see Pope Benedict as “something normal when there is a new Pope.” The particularly large influx this year, they say, is due in no small part to the fact that Rome made a bella figura (great impression) last April when it handled with aplomb the more than 3 million mourners who came to the city.

Polish residents are quick to point out that John Paul II attracted enormous crowds to Rome in life, and is doing the same in death. In fact, over the last six months, at least 20,000 people per day have filed past the late Pope's burial site in St. Peter's Basilica. Many of those who file past his tomb also stay to attend the weekly audiences or Sunday Angelus.

One Polish priest said the huge crowds at the Vatican reflect continued interest in John Paul's teachings, and are a tribute to his love for the Church, his love of the priesthood as a life of service, and the life and vigor and charisma he brought to the papacy.

There is, however, one very important factor that cannot be overlooked in judging the size of the crowds who come to see Benedict XVI. Private audiences for groups on most weekdays have notably decreased since Benedict became Pope.

Whereas Pope John Paul daily received groups ranging in size from 60 to 6,000, from congregations celebrating their general chapter to members of the World Jurists Association to diocesan pilgrimages, from scouts to doctors to scientists to ecumenical groups, Benedict receives far fewer groups. Most groups requesting an audience are now included in the Wednesday general audience. Many others present themselves, waving banners of identification, in St. Peter's Square for the Sunday Angelus.

Whatever the reason, it appears that Benedict came, saw and conquered.

Joan Lewis writes from Rome.