You don’t have to go far in Rome to know that a Polish invasion is underway.
You can hear Slavic accents on every street corner. There are red and white Polish national flags fluttering in the sun. People are wearing t-shirts and hats emblazoned with image of the country’s most famous son, Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified in St Peter’s Square this weekend.
“I think there will be about 100,000 Polish people here. We know at least 40,000 are arriving with organized groups but there are also lots making their own way here,” Polish radio journalist Dorota Piotrawska tells me in St. Peter’s Square.
“Yesterday I met three men, two of them in their 60s, who’ve walked all the way from Poland just to be here to give thanks for our Pope and for all he gave us. Similarly, I met a young man who’s walked from the town of Bialystok in eastern Poland. That’s over 1600 kilometers (990 miles). When I listen to the stories of Polish pilgrims here in Rome and what they’ve given up just to be here, well, I get very emotional.”
One such pilgrim is Kataryna Katarzyna, a 33-year-old student from the Polish city of Lodz, “I’m of the Pope John II generation. I was born the year he was elected Pope. I came to Rome when he died. So when we heard he was going to be a saint both I and my parents said, ‘we must be there!’”
Pilgrims such as Kataryna will be joined for Sunday’s beatification ceremony by the Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski. Also present will be former president Lech Walesa.
The country’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has opted to spend the day in John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice in southern Poland. There about 20,000 people will pack into the town’s main square to watch events live from the Vatican.