They then waited in a line a mile long and 25 abreast, to see the pontiff at the altar where he lay in state, wrapped in crimson vestments.
Few of the people at St. Peter's Square knew when the pope would be moved from the Vatican's Apostolic Palace for display to the public, so they gathered early, standing under umbrellas to ward off a searing afternoon sun, then bundled in jackets for protection from the evening chill.
They were willing to wait.
When the square filled, tens of thousands more people squeezed between barriers police erected on Via della Conciliazione, the grand boulevard that connects Rome with the Vatican and leads to the Tiber River. The earliest of them waited seven hours before being led to see the pope's body.
"I would wait overnight if I had to," said Brian McDaid, a retired teacher and carpenter from Omagh, Northern Ireland, in line with his wife, Florence, a retired nurse. "Our holiday here has become a pilgrimage, and we feel privileged for that."
The pope was carried through the frescoed corridors and down the marbled steps of the Apostolic Palace on a crimson velvet bier by 12 white-gloved pallbearers in formal dark suits and white bow ties. The familiar Swiss Guards in ornamental red-plumed helmets walked alongside the pallbearers. Priests and cardinals and monks carrying candles were all part of the procession, which moved with the chanting of the Litany of Saints.
As his body was carried up the steps to the basilica and the pallbearers reached a theatrical red-velvet curtain tied to form an opening at its entrance, the procession suddenly halted.
The pallbearers then turned the pope's body so that it faced the crowd, lowered the foot-end of the platform and delicately raised the end where the pope's head rested, providing a look at the man who reigned over the church for 26 years.
The clapping rippled through the large columns that ring the square and then down the streets spoking from it, where others had gathered, some listening to loudspeakers fastened to buildings, others watching on screens erected on sidewalks.
The pope's body was placed in front of the central altar of the basilica where Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, the papal chamberlain, blessed him with holy water, then with incense.
"Oh lord, our salvation, listen to us who are praying to you with all the saints," the cardinal said. "And welcome our pope, John Paul, who trusted in the prayer of the church, in Christ our lord. Grant him eternal rest, our lord. May perpetual light shine on him. May he rest in peace."
Shortly before 8 p.m., Vatican ushers opened the 16th-century basilica to the thousands.
Hotel rooms throughout Rome are sold out, ready for what city officials expect to be about 2 million visitors. They have opened stadiums in town to allow pilgrims to camp out before of the funeral and, since Thursday, hundreds of people have been setting up tents and sleeping in bedrolls on St. Peter's Square.
President Bush is expected to attend the funeral, as are British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prince Charles, who postponed his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles a day, until Saturday. In all, more than 200 world leaders are expected.
"It will be a moment without precedent," Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni told Repubblica Radio yesterday. "Rome will grind to a halt."