VATICAN CITY–Their numbers reaching into the hundreds, excited Catholics are lining up in front of St. Peter's Basilica in the hopes of scoring a seat for the upcoming funeral of Pope John Paul II.
Sipping hot cocoa Monday while seated in a folding chair, Salvatore Bruni, 56, a Florence tailor, said he has been in line since Feb. 10.
"I don't know how much longer I'll have to wait, but whether it's five days or five months, it'll be well worth it," said Bruni from his position near the front of the queue. "This is going to be a funeral I'll never forget."
"The pope is a great man who has done wondrous things for the world," said Seamus O'Halloran, a Dublin pub owner who missed the Mar. 15 wedding of his nephew to avoid losing his spot in line. "So to have a chance to be there when they finally put him in the ground, man, that's something I'll tell my grandkids about."
Despite persistent rumors that the pope has Parkinson's disease, the Vatican continues to deny that his death is imminent, insisting that the pontiff is in excellent health for a man his age. Nevertheless, the line of faithful "Pope Deathwatchers" that wraps around the cathedral continues to swell by the hour.
Many of those waiting in line hope to catch a glimpse of the pope before he dies.
"I'm sure he'd love to come down and talk to us, but he's probably too weak by this point," said Maria Tineo, a Venezuelan nun who recently jumped 10 spaces in line when she correctly spelled the pope's real name–Karol Joseph Wojtyla–in a contest sponsored by a Rome radio station. "Some people near the back of the line thought they saw him on the balcony, but that turned out to be false."
Though no pope sightings have occurred in the last few weeks, periodic glimpses of cardinals entering and exiting St. Peter's have kept the crowd juiced.
"I've seen Cardinal Sadano twice," said Milan resident Sofia Cucino, who runs the pope fan site Johnpaulrules.com. "I also saw Cardinal Grantin once and wanted to ask him to get the pope to sign my copy of Crossing The Threshold Of Hope, but I couldn't get his attention. I just hope it's not my last chance."
While portable radios and TVs keep the crowd up to date on the pope's health, those in line have mostly entertained themselves. Among the most popular ways to pass the time include discussing the revised criteria for sainthood, trading pope-sighting stories, singing "Ave Maria," quoting the scripture, playing Catholic Trivial Pursuit, and, most of all, discussing the life of Pope John Paul II.
"Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in more than 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever," said William Strand, an Omaha, NE, priest. "He had to struggle every step of the way, right from his start as a young priest in the godless, communist country of Poland. Before he became a priest, he belonged to an experimental theater troupe, worked as a stonecutter, and was a published poet. He also enjoyed mountain climbing and kayaking. He was–I mean is–truly one of a kind."
While nearly everyone in line intends to wait as long as it takes until the pope dies, many do not plan to remain for the naming of a successor.
"I'm here to lend my faith and devotion to a very holy man in his final days," said Mario Battaglia of Genoa. "After he departs, so shall I."
For all the faithful's enthusiasm, some observers say the queued Catholics are wasting their time, insisting that they will be squeezed out of the funeral by the countless heads of state and other dignitaries that will descend upon the Vatican from around the world.
"When [the pope] dies, it will be an unbelievable event. Everybody who's anybody will be there," said Dr. Lawrence Shear, dean of the Yale School of Divinity. "The media requests alone could fill that basilica. Since the Vatican is always looking for the kind of coverage the death of a major leader brings, the devoted will be out of luck."
Continued Shear: "I think the best those poor Catholics can hope for is to be interviewed about their feelings on the pope's passing by local TV news affiliates while wailing in St. Peter's Square."