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ON A BENCH near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, five nuns take a snack break.

They’re among the thousands of nuns, priests and seminarians who swirl through Rome, which surrounds the sovereign Vatican state and its massive St. Peter’s.

Rome has been a center of Christian religious life for more than 1,700 years. The religious flocks are joined these days by more and more Catholic pilgrims and tourists, newly energized by the election of Pope Francis last March.

Pope Francis, with his modest lifestyle and more moderate stances on some social issues than previous popes, has struck a chord with many Catholics.

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Latin Americans in particular have swollen the ranks of Rome’s tourists; Pope Francis was born in Argentina, and they’re proud to see one of their own in the epicenter of Catholicism. They wander through the city’s cobbled streets and ancient churches, and crowd St. Peter’s when the pope appears. And, like the nuns, take a break from it all when they can find a city bench.

Kristin R. Jackson is The Seattle Times NWTraveler editor. Contact her at