in Rome - Four-that's how many times Deborah Vela is stopped in the two blocks between the bakery and the tobacconist on Rome's Via Della Lungara. She's Spanish, here on vacation, but language hasn't been a problem during these frequent encounters. Baby babble is a universal language; "koochikoo" means, well, koochikoo in every known tongue. Four times people have knelt or bent down to blither at a grinning, gap-toothed, dark-eyed baby. Michelle is 9 months old, riding in a collapsible stroller, and is gnawing bread from the bakery as her mother buys a telephone card at the tobacconist. "She's very popular, I find," smiles Ms. Vela, a 34-year-old artist. "So much attention. Italians love children." Michelle doesn't seem to mind the attention. A wrinkled old woman, buying magazines, tries to buy her a chocolate square; Ms. Vela thanks her profusely, but declines on behalf of her daughter. "She is so beautiful," the woman says. "I hardly see any now." Clearly, Italians love children. So why does Italy have the lowest birthrate in the world? In 1964, Italy averaged 2.7 births per woman; today, the rate is less than half that-1.2 births per woman. The government's bureau of statistics announced last fall that by 2010, Italy will be the first nation in history to have more citizens over the age of 60 than under the age of 18. As one newspaper reported, schools are shuttered, obstetricians are bored, and the government is considering paying couples to have more babies. In a nearby Vatican office, Monsignor Francisco Gil Hellen, secretary to the Pontifical Council on the Family, says the birth dearth has a major catalyst: "People have little hope. "There was a similar decline in the 17th century," he says. "The beginning of rationalism, more skepticism. But after the French revolution, people began to have hope again, and the rate went up again. And after World War I, another decline. No baby boom. Why? Because people knew the victory was not complete, that another war was coming." Today, the priest says he hears a common complaint from young women: "My mother was a slave, and I don't want to be like her." He dismisses the idea, but not the threat it poses to the family. "Children aren't learning that selfless love is the highest love-that a family is an accomplishment."