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Most Romans go about their normal lives, unaffected by pope's struggle

VATICAN CITY _They rented DVDs at the Blockbuster off Piazza Barberini, shopped for clothes on the Via del Corso, and gazed at modernist paintings in the Complesso del Vittoriano museum.

They lingered in cafes. They played golf.

While thousands of people streamed through in St. Peter's Square awaiting news about the pope, hundreds of thousands more Romans went about their weekend, some paying only scant attention to the drama that has focused a white-hot international media spotlight on their corner of the world.

"It's just a normal day," said Roberta Masoni, pushing her five-month old son in a stroller outside Rome's zoo in the Villa Borghese Park. "We have a soft spot for this pope, because he was very good to young people," she said. But, she noted, Italians aren't as religious as they used to be. Many viewed the pope as more of a celebrity than a religious leader.

"Most people are going about their lives normally," said accountant William P. Barsanti, who played 18 holes Saturday morning. "People die every day, including important people."

As the 24-hour news channels labored to fill their airtime, and as visiting journalists grasped for cliches, it was easy to imagine this ancient, cobble-stoned capital grinding to a halt as the world waited for word of the pope's fate.

But that's not the way it was.

This is not the Italy of the 1950s, when the Church set the tone for the ruling Christian Democrats and 70 percent of Italians attended Mass with frequency. Italy may be 97 percent Catholic, but only about 31 percent of Italians say they attend church regularly these days, according to polls—lower than the 38 percent in the United States. The Christian Democratic Party is no more, dissolved after a bribery scandal in the early 1990s.

Italians voted to legalize abortion in 1978, the year Pope John Paul II began his tenure. Like most Catholics in the industrialized world, they routinely ignore church teachings on birth control (they have some of the lowest birth rates in the Western world) and sexuality (many couples cohabitate before marriage). A growing plurality is at odds with the Vatican over homosexuality.

None of which meant that Romans were unmoved by the pope's struggle, of course. A Pole, he spoke fluent Italian and was particularly popular in Italy, even though he was the first non-Italian pope since 1523.

"He has had a strong impact here, not only from a religious point of view, but from a civil point of view," said Sergio DiSimone, a 75-year-old retiree.

What's more, not everything was proceeding as normal in Italy. The country's sports authority cancelled all weekend soccer matches, a gesture akin to the National Football League canceling games after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York.

"There are more important things than soccer," said Gianfranco Zola, captain of the Cagliari squad.

Still, one could walk the streets in many neighborhoods of this city of 2.5 million people Saturday and see nothing but normal urban rhythms.

Fabio and Christina Ciancaglioni, pushing their 7-month-old son in a stroller through the park, are typical of many of their generation. They got married in the church and had their son baptized, but they don't agree with every Catholic teaching.

They went to St. Peter's Square Friday night to show their sympathy for the pope, and also to be a part of one of the seminal historical events of their lives. On Saturday they were strolling through the park, enjoying the sun.

"We are quite sad for him, but we would be sad for anyone who is dying," Christina Ciancaglioni said.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POPE

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