Contrary to preliminary reports from Sicily on Sunday, the crowds attending papal events in the island's capital city were "never before seen in Italy." According to an official from Holy See's Press Office who was on the ground at the event, this is just the latest occurrence in a continuous "crescendo" of "miracle" turnouts for Pope Benedict XVI.
The Holy Father visited Sicily for just 10 hours on Sunday, but according to press office figures, he was seen by nearly 300,000 people. Three major events marked the day's schedule, two of which were outdoors on a very hot, clear day.
Police figures originally put the figure at 30,000 people for the morning Mass on the seafront esplanade called the "Foro Italico." But the sub-director of the Holy See's Press Office, Fr. Ciro Benedettini, who was able to get the official estimates from local authorities, said on Monday that the figure was "around 200,000." From his vantage point at the altar, he said, there were people as far as the eye could see, and accompanying the Pope's every movement across the city there was a robust line of people to greet him as he passed.
Of these and the "at least 30,000" young people and families that showed for the afternoon encounter with the Holy Father in a city square, Fr. Benedettini said that for a pastoral visit in Italy, "they are the highest figures we have ever seen."
A "consistent crescendo" of interest follows the Pope recent trips, he said, which include the U.K., where the Pope was also seen by hundreds of thousands of people. An estimated 500,000 attendees joined the Pope for Mass at the Marian shrine in Fatima, Portugal during his visit there last May.
He also referred to the reverent silence of the crowds during events at which the Pope presides as a “miracle.” The same total silence was observed on Sunday in Sicily, just as it was at Mass in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, at London's Hyde Park during the prayer vigil and also at Blessed Cardinal Newman's beatification Mass in Birmingham.
Not wishing to make a comparison with turnouts for celebrations during John Paul II's five visits to the island, Fr. Benedettini emphasized his positive impressions to journalists in the Vatican press office on Monday, asking, "Did you see the enthusiasm of the young people?"
Of Pope Benedict XVI, he said, "they were as happy with him and more."