VATICAN CITY - Thousands of pilgrims and tourists, including sandal-footed Franciscan monks and curious sightseers from afar, filed down a somber avenue of papal tombs yesterday to whisper prayers and lower their heads before the final resting place of Pope John Paul II.
Some said they had arrived as early as 5 a.m. to stand in line before the gates swung open two hours later on the first day the late pope's tomb was made available for viewing by the public since his burial on Friday.
Once inside the Vatican grottoes, beneath the marbled floors of the sprawling St. Peter's Basilica, many of those who came early dropped to their knees in prayer before the tomb's white marble cover, which bore the gold-inscribed name of the pope who many believe is on a fast track toward sainthood.
But soon the black-suited and uniformed ushers helped them to their feet and did their best to keep the line moving swiftly.
One of the pilgrims, Teresa Mirabella, who runs the Anawin homeless shelter on Chicago's northwest side, said she was deeply moved as she knelt before the tomb of the late Polish pope.
"So much was going through my mind," said Mirabella, who also was born in Poland. "This was a pope who made a difference. He taught us how to laugh and to reach out to one another. He led us to understand that we must truly love one another and get along with one another. And he showed us how to especially be true to ourselves."
Mirabella said that although the growing line of visitors eventually was kept on the move, she was allowed to remain behind a nearby column for some 15 minutes of private prayer.
"The guard was kind enough to let me stay there," she said.
Some laid bouquets of flowers on the mosaic floor in front of the tomb while others tossed coins, paper money and notes bearing scrawled prayers offered on behalf of the dead pope - or asking divine favors of him - into two wicker baskets.
"I'm hoping maybe for a little miracle," said Myrna Palmer, 67, of Hagerstown. "I'm praying to him that my husband gets his eyesight back."
A small candle enclosed in red glass is near the tomb and a curving wall behind it bears a stone relief of the Madonna and Child flanked by two angels.
The tomb lies in an alcove amid a group of floor-level tombs and sarcophaguses that contain the remains of some of Pope John Paul II's predecessors, including John Paul I, Paul VI and Pius XII. Pope John Paul's site once contained the body of Pope John XXIII, whose remains were transferred to the main floor of the basilica after his beatification in 2000.
A few steps farther and to the left is a marbled sanctuary immediately above the tomb that Vatican officials believe contains the remains of St. Peter, the first pope.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.