Beliefnet

ROME, Aug. 17 (AP) - Twenty-three-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 a young pilgrim crowd rapidly growing toward 1 million-plus bunks down in convents and classrooms, Matusik and six Polish buddies who made the bus trip from Krakow with have chosen to plunk down outside Pope John Paul II's very own house.

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

By Thursday, more than 900,000 young people from 160 countries arrived for the week of Youth Day events that in many ways will crown the Roman Catholic Church's 2000 Holy Year.

With the largest and most exuberant crowds of the year surging through the streets, this is the moment that Rome has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars preparing for.

Rome has scrubbed its facades, polished its paintings and freshened its frescoes until it looks better now than it has for millennia - and may for millennia more.

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

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

An estimated 1 million of Rome's 3 million people have hit the beach for Italy's traditional mid-August vacation, leaving the 30-degree plus (90-degree plus Fahrenheit) 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 - in modern times a dog run by day, Rome teen passion pit by night - stands transformed as a giant al fresco confession booth.

Three-hundred priests at a time sit ready at plywood booths for young penitents in any of 50 languages, said the Rev. Luca Ferrari.

Wednesday, a total of 1,200 priests heard up to 15,000 confessions in languages as exotic to homogenous Italy as Swahili.

Romanian briefly stumped Ferrari, when three Romanian boys happened to show up at a time when no priest speaking that language was on duty. Quick-thinking Ferrari was able to remember a Romanian friend at a church nearby to send them to.

Veterans of Youth Days past - John Paul started the Youth Day tradition 15 years ago, bringing it home to Rome for Holy Year - say organization is off compared to previous events.

Meals and Masses spread out among Rome's many basilicas leave the flag-waving throngs miles (kilometers) to walk, or negotiate by pilgrim-backed 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, Minnesota.

But the young people pass the wait at bus stops singing or trading pins with fellow pilgrims from other countries. The week's 20,000 Youth Day volunteers roam ready to spray them down with bracing jets from back-mounted water canisters.

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

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

With the Youth Day crowds, the line to step through the Holy Door stretches out of sight toward the Tiber River at times.

The lines at the city's McDonalds stretch out the doors as well.

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

``I can't wait until I get home and have American food,'' said Derek Vaughn, 17, of Montrose, Colorado.

Like what?

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

``The stuff you get here just isn't the same,'' Vaughn said.

To get to Rome, the young people did everything from sell pastries on the street corners of Puerto Rico every Sunday morning for a 1 1/2 years, as 20-year-old Audi Robles did, to giving exhibitions of Scotland's traditional ceilidh dance, as 16-year-old James Smith and his friends from Glasgow did.

Their week culminates with sleeping under the stars Saturday for a Mass in the cool of the morning Sunday with John Paul in a field outside Rome.

Until then, there's catechisms, confessions, Masses and wandering by day.

By night, it's gathering in piazzas to pick up the dances and songs of Spain, South America, Uganda or Italy from other pilgrims.

``If we had known we were going to sleep here we would have packed differently - like air mattresses,'' said the Rev. John Torrance of Broussard, Canada, looking Thursday morning at a classroom full of young Canadians struggling out of their sleeping bags for another day pounding the cobblestones. Rome commandeered 500 schools for housing at the last minute.

``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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