Followers begin long goodbye
It is expected that 2 million visitors will pay homage to the pope before he is buried.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II passed through the ornate front doors of St. Peter's Basilica one last time Monday as the Roman Catholic Church began an elaborate farewell for the only leader that many of the church's faithful have ever known.
Three hours later, the first of an expected 2 million visitors filed into the basilica to take a last look at the man who's credited with hastening the downfall of communism and who visited more than 100 countries during his 26-year papacy.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman, said Monday that the funeral for the pope, who died Saturday after heading the billion-strong Roman Catholic Church since 1978, will begin at 10 a.m. Friday. Afterward, he'll be placed in a tomb once occupied by Pope John XXIII, whose body John Paul II had moved to a higher and more honored spot in St. Peter's during his reign.
The pope's body had been lying in state since Sunday in a hall below his official residence, visited only by church officials, workers and members of families with longtime ties to the Vatican. At 4 p.m., dressed in red and white vestments, he was moved, in a slow procession, across St. Peter's Square, into the basilica.
A singer chanted the names of saints, in Latin: Mary, John the Baptist, Peter. In response, a choir chanted, "Pray for him."
Even by papal standards, the crowds were huge. Well before viewing began, much of Rome seemed to stream toward Vatican City. The stadium-size bowl of St. Peter's Square was filled, people jammed shoulder to shoulder and a river of humanity flowed down the wide, cobbled Via Della Conciliazione toward the square.
Fully a half-mile from the square, police blocked more people from pushing forward, as a city worker warned that the wait to view the pope will be "long and uncomfortable."
"The crowd has already filled the square, so do not go forward thinking you will walk to the Holy Father quickly," police warned.
Few, if any, turned back, however, and Vatican officials predicted that those who will pass by the pope will far outnumber the estimated 750,000 pilgrims who showed up during the three days of viewing for Pope John Paul I.
The procession was a mix of ancient tradition and modern technology. Giant screens broadcast the Renaissance-era pageantry to the tens of thousands too far away to see the procession.
Hundreds stretched their arms skyward to snap photos with camera cell phones. The crowd applauded each time the pope's body came into view, and throughout, men and women dabbed their eyes with tissues.
Once visitors were allowed in, Swiss Guards urged them to keep moving, allowing only enough time for a quick sign of the cross. Many later stopped before Michelangelo's Pieta, or in one of many side altars, to briefly kneel and pray. The rosary was being chanted on loudspeakers.
In 1978, the funeral of Pope John Paul I attracted one head of state, and he came from Italy. This time, the list is long and growing.
Among those expected to attend: President Bush and first lady Laura Bush and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
Prince Charles postponed his wedding by a day to attend. In all, the guest list now includes eleven presidents and nine prime ministers, including Tony Blair of the United Kingdom and Mikhail Fradkov of Russia.
Roman officials moved quickly to provide for the expected onslaught, scheduling additional trains into the city and providing a network of shuttle buses to ferry visitors to Vatican City.
Taxi drivers have been told to turn off their radios this week, out of respect, and the city is opening up several of its largest sports centers -- including Olympic Stadium -- to house visitors at night.
As many as 1 million Polish visitors are expected, and already Monday 200 busloads of pilgrims from the pope's home country were said to have arrived.
Indeed, there had been hopes in Poland that the pope would be buried in his homeland, but Vatican officials said the pope left no such instructions.