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Pope's funeral set for Friday as thousands pay respects

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VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II took a nearly last journey yesterday, carried solemnly from his papal home, across St. Peter's Square and into the ancient basilica where he preached, as more than 100,000 pilgrims looked on.

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.

The church's cardinals announced yesterday that he will lie in state until Friday, when his funeral will be held at 10 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT) in the basilica after his burial there, in the sacred subterranean grottoes where more than 100 other popes rest.

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.

Overwhelming applause

The crowd, as it had so many times over the previous several days any time the pope's name was mentioned or his image shown on the large screens set up on the square, applauded him.

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."

Parts of the city began slowing toward that halt yesterday.

By yesterday afternoon, St. Peter's Square had become a full-fledged shrine to Pope John Paul II, melted candles with notes attached decorating the Papal Obelisk, flowers floating in the round fountains of the square.

Police closed off Via Della Conciliazione days ago and yesterday set up steel-barred barricades on each side of it in preparation for the crowds that would line to see the pope as he lay in state.

Parents held children on their shoulders. People used cell phones to call friends and family who could not be there, volunteers handed out truckloads of bottled water while dozens of ambulances and hundreds of medical workers and police stood ready around the perimeter of the piazza, which was emptied after the pope's procession into the basilica.

Rebecca Bergmann-Bettini, 36, moved to Rome in May 2001 after 14 years in New York, said she is Jewish but was waiting in line to view the pope because of the strength of his convictions, even doctrine which she disagreed with.

"I respect him for all the conciliatory gestures he made for other faiths," she said, pointing out Pope John Paul's status as the first modern pope to visit a synagogue or a mosque. "I don't have to agree with him on everything to respect him. I respect people's right to have deeply held feelings about their faith, and he did."

Waiting for hours

Being among the first several thousand in line to view the pope, she waited from 4 p.m. until about 10 p.m. before entering the basilica.

Waiting in line, people had been chatting, some singing, some clapping, many taking pictures, keenly aware of the historical importance of the death of Pope John Paul II.

As a gate was opened to allow them to move into the square a few hundred at a time, there was a hush reminiscent of the quiet that enveloped the same place at nearly the same time on Saturday, when an archbishop had told the many of the same people praying for the pope that he had "returned to his father."

The basilica itself was nearly silent, save for a man singing softly in Italian, accompanied by a whispering organ and a small choir of women.

The basilica was empty of any pews, any chairs, empty of everything impermanent, except the pope, four Swiss Guards standing aside him and several cardinals praying off to the side, some of them wiping away tears.

And empty except for all those pilgrims. They approached the pope slowly, children holding the hands of their parents, couples holding each other. Some people snapped pictures.

The pope was dressed as he had been the day before when church and political dignitaries viewed him in the Apostolic Palace. The gold pillows under his head were replaced with crimson pillows. His face was pale white, his skin taunt.

His feet pointed toward the visitors who approached from an aisle formed in the middle of the church, leading straight to him, and when the line reached the Swiss Guards, it split, some people leaving to the right, the others to the left.

'My only pope'

Many dabbed tears. Ushers, with the long line outside the basilica in mind, gently asked the mourners to keep moving. They allowed them, though, to stop for prayers at the tiny chapels that line the perimeter of the inside of the basilica, the Chapel of the Crucifix, the Chapel of Saint Sebastian, the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, the Chapel of the Presentation.

Just after leaving the basilica, Viola Sciarra, 18, was crying. She is from Rome and had been embraced by the pope when she was a child and had sung for him in 2000 at the Jubilee.

"He has been my only pope," she said. "He was very special. You can say that about all popes, maybe, but I know this one was the most special."

"She has always carried this with her and I feel the same way," said her mother, Maria Assunta. "I shouldn't say more because I feel emotional, too, and I don't want to start."

As heir to St. Peter's throne, Pope John Paul II will be buried immediately after the funeral in the basilica, where St. Peter is believed to have been buried.

The grotto where he is likely to be interred, though, is well underground and cramped, and given the popularity of Pope John Paul II, Vatican officials said his tomb is likely to be moved after burial to somewhere more accessible in the basilica.

Pope John Paul II was the first Slavic pope, and there had been speculation - and in Poland, much hope - that he would be buried in his home country. Vatican officials said, though, that the pope did not request any alteration of tradition in his burial.

This morning, approaching the scheduled 2 a.m. closing of the basilica, thousands of people remained in line. Many of them planned to camp overnight, awaiting the re-opening, scheduled for 5 a.m.


Schedule of events

Today until Friday: Pope John Paul II's body will lie in state for public viewing at St. Peter's Basilica until his funeral.

Friday: Services will be held at 10 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT) at the Vatican. More than 200 foreign dignitaries are expected to attend.

Friday until April 17: The official period of mourning leading up to the start of the conclave.

April 17 or 18: The expected start of the conclave, where cardinals younger than 80 will convene in secret to select a new pope.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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