VATICAN CITY — Shortly before 6 a.m. Tuesday, a group of police carrying flashlights stepped over a row of lumpy sleeping bags lining a sidewalk where Catholic pilgrims had camped out all night. These faithful had been allowed to get a jump on the line into St. Peter’s Square when the gates opened at 6:30 a.m. ahead of a midmorning Mass, during which Pope Francis opened the sealed Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica to kick off the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The Catholic campers had been “checked out” the night before, according to a police officer who told The Daily Beast they posed no security threat. When asked how they knew for sure, one of the officers explained that most were carrying rosaries and other prayer paraphernalia. Apparently deep devotion to a religion like Catholicism is thought to be enough to keep people from doing bad things.
To be fair, the campers were outside the so-called buffer zone set up around Vatican City to protect Pope Francis and the pilgrims from potential acts of terrorism. While those in charge of security say there are no specific threats, the FBI implied something different when they warned last month that all Americans should steer clear of St. Peter’s Basilica for the foreseeable future. And a year ago, ISIS threatened the Vatican with a photo of a black jihadi flag superimposed over St. Peter’s Square on the cover of its Dabiq propaganda magazine.
Within an hour or so after the buffer-zone gates opened, more than 50,000 people had gathered for the first of three security checkpoints to enter the square. Officials had predicted as much as double that amount, but there is such tension after the Paris attacks that it seemed surprising that anyone showed up at all. Dignitaries, including ambassadors to the Holy See and Italy’s prime minister and president, were especially guarded and swept in and out through the back of the basilica.
A visibly tired Francis held an open-air Mass under a newly enacted no-fly zone over Rome while snipers and drones and more than 2,250 uniformed soldiers protected the masses. Rome has installed 2,000 CCTV cameras that are monitoring nearly 1,500 “sensitive” areas around the city. “Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved,” Francis told the crowd. “Instead, let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things.”
The lucky few thousand who had VIP tickets to an area past yet another security checkpoint then followed Francis through the newly opened Holy Door into St. Peter’s Basilica after Mass. Walking through the Holy Doors at any time during the next 12 months comes with an indulgence for devout Catholics if followed by confession, which amounts to time off for good behavior in purgatory, among other perks for sinners.
Rome has been braced for the start of the Jubilee almost since Francis announced it. “We are preparing for a Jubilee in the time of ISIS,” said Italy’s security czar, Franco Gabrielli, who has been given the daunting task of managing security for the event in Rome in the absence of a mayor, who resigned this fall.
Among the extraordinary measures are counterterrorism courses for taxi drivers to teach them not only how to protect themselves, but how to spot potential terrorists and report them. Similar courses will be offered to bus drivers.
Notwithstanding the amount of concern and money invested into securing the Eternal City, the kickoff to the Holy Jubilee Year of Mercy seems to have gone off without a hitch. No doubt security officials breathed a sigh of relief amid pats on the back for their success. Now let’s just hope the next 364 days go as smoothly.