VATICAN CITY - For much of this week, hundreds of thousands of people waited in line to view a body, a scene that would have been morbid in any other city.
But this is Rome, a city that reveres the bodies of its heroes. And it is also the heart of Catholicism - a church in which the human body holds a treasured position as the vehicle that God used to speak to man.
People who flocked to St. Peter's Basilica to see the remains that once held the life of Pope John Paul II mostly said they wanted to pay respect to the life the pope led, not to the body he left behind.
"It's not morbid at all," said Zachary Weber, a seminarian from Cincinnati. "It's recognition that God created us not just as spirits and not just as flesh and blood, either. I think it's reassuring to see his body, as a reminder of the life he lived and as a reminder that his life will go on."
"I want to thank him for his compassion, for all that he did for the family of man," said Marcus Kanaeathi, a pilgrim from Montreal who stood in line in the sun-filled St. Peter's Square. "It won't matter what he looks like, only what he did in life."
Part of faith
But the clergymen gathered outside the Vatican gates, participating in the festival-like celebration of Catholicism that the city has become, were quick to remind visitors that the human body is central to their faith. Not only did God visit man through the flesh-and-bone incarnation of his son, Jesus, but he promised in the Bible to resurrect the bodies of his followers when Jesus returns, they said.
"The gift of his presence came to us in that body, and that body allowed him to spread the message of Christ throughout the world," said the Rev. Kevin L. Fete, a priest from Canton, Ohio, who walked past the pope's body yesterday. "But we also believe the body is the vessel through which our spirits will be saved."
When Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced this week that Pope John Paul's body would not be embalmed, it evoked the stories of popes long dead who reportedly decayed so noticeably and completely before their burials that followers and guards found it difficult to stand near them. Church leaders said they had little concern about the prospects of a public decomposition, however.
"This is part of Christian teaching. It reminds us that life is changing," said Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia. "It's not taken away. This is what goes on and there is another chapter, and that's resurrection.'
But the decision not to embalm also reflects the church's regard for the physical being along with the spiritual one, church leaders said. And it opens the door through which Pope John Paul could send a message to his followers from beyond life - the message that he deserves sainthood.
If Pope John Paul's body were to remain lifelike and show no obvious decomposition - a state of being "incorruptible" - the church would consider it a clear sign that the pope deserves sainthood. The body of St. Bernadette is said to be on display, decay-free, in Nevers, France. To embalm Pope John Paul would deprive him of that chance.
But the pope's body, decaying or not, is hardly the only public display of death in this city. If not for the reverence with which the church looks upon physical remains, Rome would be a virtual theater of the macabre, strewn as it is with the bodies and body pieces of Catholicism's greatest saints and leaders.
The vaults and altars of Vatican City are filled with what the church calls relics, which typically include hair, slivers of bone or even the hearts of saints, often encased in gold crosses. The ancient church where Pope John Paul's body has rested this week contains a labyrinth of tombs filled with the bodies of popes and saints.
The St. John Lateran Basilica is said to contain the heads of the apostles Peter and Paul, while the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, is said to hold the tongue of the man for which it was named
Celebration of life
Still, the Vatican was swallowed yesterday by a celebration of life, not a reflection on death. Followers burst into spontaneous chants and songs, and waved signs as they inched toward the basilica, expecting to see not so much a body but a reminder of the pope, whose legend seems to be ever growing in death.
Outside the gates to the square, a group of American seminarians studying in Rome pondered the importance of putting a body on display and how they hoped it would serve not only to provide closure, but also to remind people about the sources of their faith.
As they debated the topic like any other group of college students, one of them mentioned the gospel of Luke, which recounts Jesus' appearing to the Apostles after he was crucified. He ate with them - a sign of his physical presence - and he implored them to touch his hands and feet to believe that he had risen from the dead, saying: "A spirit hath not flesh and bones."
"We believe that when Christ returns to save all people," said Peter Purpura, a seminarian from Brooklyn, N.Y., "their bodies will rise up to be redeemed."