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 CNS Story:

POPE-CROWDS Oct-18-2005 (340 words) xxxi

Pope Benedict's public appearances drawing huge crowds

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI's public appearances are drawing huge crowds of pilgrims to the Vatican -- even more than those of his beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

According to Vatican statistics, more than 1 million people have attended the pope's weekly general audience or his Sunday blessing since his election in April.

That's more than twice the number of pilgrims who attended the same events in 2004 which were presided over by an infirm Pope John Paul.

Observers cited a "new pope" effect, saying people want a personal look at Pope Benedict. Interest may have broadened after the global media attention given the Vatican during the period of papal transition.

Many of the pilgrims say they are coming to see two popes, visiting the tomb of Pope John Paul in the Vatican grottoes and attending an audience or blessing with Pope Benedict.

According to the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, about 410,000 people attended Pope Benedict's general audience in the period May-September, compared to 194,000 last year.

In the same period, the Sunday Angelus blessing drew 600,000 this year and 262,000 last year, it said.

Pope Benedict's large crowds are generally well-absorbed by St. Peter's Square, but at a general audience in early October part of the throng spilled over onto adjacent side streets. The October audiences were averaging more than 50,000 people.

When cooler weather comes and general audiences are moved indoors, Vatican officials may face a problem.

The Vatican's audience hall holds only about 8,000 people; St. Peter's Basilica holds another 6,000. If the pope splits the audience into those two venues, that still would not accommodate the kinds of crowds that have been showing up lately.

Msgr. Paolo De Nicolo, an official of the prefecture, said the crowd overflow would probably end up outside, where presumably people would follow events on giant TV screens.

"We would probably put them in the square," he said.

And if it's cold outside?

"They can put on a coat," he said with a laugh.

END


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