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Silent crowds seek comfort and miracles with prayer

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

VATICAN CITY — As people bustled about the streets of Rome preparing for another Friday night on the town, the news changed hands like a family rumour.

"Did you hear that Papa's taken a fall?" a woman at a vegetable stall asked the vendor, using the popular Italian term for the Pope.

"Yes, the poor old soul — what a nice old geezer, I'll miss him," the shopkeeper replied.

But amid this characteristically Roman air of cheery resignation, small gatherings of people broke away from the crowd of shoppers on the Via del Corso and headed off across the bridges traversing the Tiber River, toward the Vatican.

By nightfall, clusters of people were making their way along the broad avenue that leads to St. Peter's Square. By midnight, a river of people flowed into the square.

There, they found themselves wandering into an impossible quiet. Although the vast plaza was filled with people in the purple light of dusk, during those early hours the only discernible sounds came from the splashing of the twin fountains and a low murmuring from the area around the obelisk in the centre.

There, lay Catholics were leading a few hundred people, sotto voce, in the saying of the Holy Rosary. From a distance, it sounded like a breeze.

Around them, thousands more people stood silently, staring at the windows of the papal apartment above them. Two windows were lit.

Some people held candles, others rosaries, and even more clutched cellphones to their ears.

Eyes moved from the obelisk, which Catholics regard as the burial place of St. Peter, Christ's chosen successor, and the papal apartment, home to the man who is Peter's current incarnation.

Then, shortly after the sun set on Rome last night, a strange and distinct sensation swept through the tens of thousands of people.

The crowd turned silent. All eyes turned to the two windows. Not a word was spoken, but there was a sense, conveyed across thousands of cellphone whisperings and nervous glances, that the Pope was no longer there. Not, at least, as he had been for the past 27 years.

"Something just changed," whispered Olivia Escarro, 22, visiting northern Italy from Montreal when the news broke, and who rushed to Rome.

Immediately, hundreds more candles were lit, and some people dropped to their knees in prayer.

"I don't know what we're supposed to be praying for," one woman said. A man in Franciscan robes told her to pray for an easy passage from life to death.

A nun in blue robes removed a cellphone from her ear and turned to her fellow sisters. "The prayers need to begin now."

The lights soon came up and a dozen cardinals appeared on the stairs. Parents lowered their children to the ground. The crowd thickened as thousands more people entered the square. Distant car horns could be heard.

Then the loudspeakers began carrying the sound of prayer and incantation, which continued throughout the night. In quiet unison, the crowd repeated the Ave Maria prayer over and over, hundreds of times: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus."

The Apostolic Palace remained dark, except for those two windows. Many of those gathered in the square had seen the Pope appear at those windows, some many times, some as recently as Sunday, when he made a desperate and faltering effort to celebrate mass, his voice and body failing.

Last night, some still held hope that his silhouette might appear in the window — one last miracle from a Pope who sanctified dozens of weeping statues, canonized countless miracle-rendering saints and performed his own miracles, from recovery from a bullet wound to disease, on a good number of occasions.

At some point late in the night, the Ave Marias and Lord's Prayers stopped, and the cardinals strolled back into their Vatican quarters.

The crowd was left standing again, massed in perfectly still, perfectly quiet wonder. There was nothing to be said. All you could hear, above the hissing fountains, was the buzz of scooters and the honk of horns far away, as the secular world went about its Friday-night business.

Inside the Holy City, nobody seemed to know what to do, and for a long time nobody moved.

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