I asked an American priest here – a writer with years of experience in Rome, who'd reported on the last papal funerals and conclaves in 1978 – if he was struck by any sharp differences between what he'd witnessed then and what's been unfolding the past few weeks.
"Sure," he told me, "there are three big changes: tents, TV, and tourists."
As quickly as the streets of Rome were being flooded with pilgrims drawn here for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, city authorities were erecting tent cities to house them. It by no means kept the streets free of the thousands who slept rough – but it was a grand gesture, efficiently executed, and a big, dramatic symbol of the city's response to the enormous influx of humanity.
TV was an overwhelming presence on the landscape, too: the scores of cameras on platforms around and above St. Peter's Square, and dotting the rooftops of Prati, the old Roman neighborhood alongside the Vatican. Almost any roof high enough to provide a good viewing angle for the events unfolding outside St. Peter's basilica, it seemed, had been rented out as camera space. Which of course meant more tents, to protect the cameras, the crews and the correspondents using them.
But the tourists mentioned by the priest may have represented the most striking image. The two million or so people who came to Rome and the Vatican on eve of John Paul II's death and for his funeral weren't only Catholic pilgrims moved by faith. They were also a crowd of the curious, sightseers pulled by a moment of history, and ordinary tourists who happened to be in a special place at an extraordinary time.
It's not really surprising. Noticed by most journalists who'd covered him over the years – even if not always reported – John Paul had always managed to attract a diverse crowd of the faithful and the curious.
To many of us, it always seemed his fame and his charisma were almost as much of a drawing card as his Catholicism. For believers, that may have provided evidence of what they call the "universal" nature of their Church and faith. For skeptics, it may have simply been more proof of the irresistible lure of celebrity. The fact is, he always drew a crowd.
Romans knew that, and now as the Vatican - the city's best-known and most important attraction - is returning to a more regular rhythm of ritual under a new papacy, Rome is preparing to measure what effect there will be from the change in administration. The outlook, it seems, is quite optimistic.
Tourism, according to city officials, is expected to boom. One newspaper calls it "the Wojtyla effect," after John Paul II's Polish name. It reports that city officials are predicting an increase in tourism of almost ten percent this summer, attributable to an image of efficiency, security and "friendliness" broadcast worldwide during events surrounding the papal transition.
In the aftermath of the death of one pope and the election of another, it says, worries about a strong euro and fears of terrorism have virtually disappeared. For May, top hotels are already reportedly almost fully booked by U.S., French and German tourists.
Another local paper points out that tourists' interest in the Eternal City has always been more than a matter of faith, but asserts it doubtless helps business here that the Vatican provides something that is "a little bit mystical and religious," suggesting, perhaps, that the Holy See is regarded by some here as an ecclesiastical Disneyland.
One newspaper actually published a handy guide for faithless or forgetful visitors, an aid to distinguishing some of the locals. Priests, it explained, are dressed in basic black. Monsignors wear a sash of purple, and bishops' vestments include purple piping and a cap.
The Vatican too, of course, stands to benefit from any jump in tourism, primarily from additional revenues generated by museum admission fees. But tourism is really Rome's business; the Vatican's is saving souls. It's a division of labor that seems to be benefiting both.