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World's young people descend on Rome

Annual event draws hundreds of thousands of youthful pilgrims from all over the globe

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2000

ROME -- Twenty-three-year-old Pawel Matusik figures he's picked the best seat in the house for Rome's World Youth Day: St. Peter's Square itself.

While the rest of the expected 1 million-plus young Catholic pilgrims bunk down in convents and classrooms, Matusik and six Polish buddies who made the bus trip from Krakow chose to set up outside Pope John Paul II's very own house.

''Why? Look!'' Matusik said, gesturing at the floodlit marble basilica glowing before his sleeping bag. ''This place is beautiful!''

With masses of young people streaming in from around the world, the week of Youth Day events is drawing the largest and most exuberant crowds of the Roman Catholic Church's 2000 Holy Year.

It is a moment that Rome has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars preparing for. The city has scrubbed its facades, polished its paintings and freshened its frescoes until it looks better now than it has for millennia.

''Rome is a beautiful city, and they are beautiful young people,'' bar worker Franco Abbruzzetti said, nodding approvingly at crews picking up some of the 900 tons of trash collected by midweek. ''Rome is worthy of them.''

In a way, it's as if the host spiffed up the place, turned the keys over to the guests, and left.

''They have taken over Rome, in the happiest sense of the word,'' Mayor Francesco Rutelli said Thursday.

An estimated 1 million of Rome's 3 million people have hit the beach for Italy's traditional mid-August vacation, leaving the 90-degree-plus streets and the fountains in which to recover from them to the pilgrim hordes.

It's an influx of biblical proportions.

The Circus Maximus, where seven times around made a chariot race for the likes of Ben-Hur, stands transformed from its modern role as a daytime dog run and nighttime teen passion pit into a giant al fresco confession booth.

Every day, 1,200 priests fluent in 50 languages from Italian to Swahili hear up to 15,000 confessions. And some of 20,000 volunteers roamed the dusty track with back-mounted water canisters, ready to spray the sweaty.

Veterans of Youth Days past -- John Paul started the tradition 15 years ago, bringing it home to Rome for Holy Year -- say organization is off somewhat compared to previous events. Meals and Masses spread out among Rome's many basilicas leave the flag-waving throngs miles to either walk or negotiate by pilgrim-packed public buses.

''It's people-to-people, wall-to-wall, from pickup to drop off,'' said Catherine Trojack, a high school student from St. Paul, Minn.

But Trojack, standing in line outside St. Peter's for the trip through the Holy Door, had no complaints.

''I can't believe I'm 15 years old and already seen the pope,'' she said.

But religious sites aren't the only places drawing crowds; lines at the city's McDonald's restaurants stretch out the doors as well.

However well-regarded by the world at large, Italian food wasn't cutting it with American teens accustomed to fast food, or Seychelles young people accustomed to meat and rice.

''I can't wait until I get home and have American food,'' said Derek Vaughn, 17, of Montrose, Colo. Like what?

''Pizza!'' Vaughn and his friends exclaimed.

To get to Rome, Youth Day participants did everything from sell pastries on the street corners of Puerto Rico every Sunday for 18 months -- as 20-year-old Audi Robles did -- to give exhibitions of Scotland's traditional ceilidh dance -- as 16-year-old James Smith and his friends from Glasgow did.

The week ends with a sleepout in a field outside Rome under the stars before a Sunday Mass with John Paul. Until then, there are catechisms, confessions, Masses and wandering. Finding places to sleep was a bit of a challenge -- as the pilgrims poured in, church groups found them beds in homes, convents -- wherever. Matusik and his friends slept near St. Peter's by choice.

By night, there are gatherings in piazzas, where the young people can pick up the dances and songs of other pilgrims from Spain, South America, Uganda or Italy.

''If we had known we were going to sleep here we would have packed differently -- like air mattresses,'' said the Rev. John Torrance, looking at a classroom full of young Canadians struggling out of sleeping bags. It was one of 500 schools Rome commandeered to house pilgrims.

''But the kind of days they're having, by the time they get to bed every night, it doesn't matter,'' Torrance said. ''They could sleep anywhere.''



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