VATICAN CITY – The mourners stood in line hour after hour, starting when the sun’s heat blazed off the Vatican’s old stones, and into the late night chill. Pilgrims older than the late pope struggled to remain standing. Young children, even infants, were unusually well behaved.
All the time, as the line inched forward, it grew longer and longer, out of St. Peter’s Square, stretching out of sight down the Via Della Conciliazione. Police said close to midnight it was 2 miles long – and many people wide.
For pilgrims mourning Pope John Paul II, it was a deeply moving scene: the pope lying lifeless on a crimson platform, wearing a pair of the simple brown leather shoes he so often wore on his trips around the world.
There was no stopping for a lingering view, a motionless moment of reflection. Many wept as they walked past the bier. Some collapsed against the wall outside after leaving St. Peter’s Basilica, where the pope’s remains went on public view Monday afternoon. He will be buried Friday.
People who had never had an audience with the pope felt as if they had lost a dear one. “Every time I saw him (on television) he told me something, he gave me a message,” said Silvia Sandon, 23, a student in Rome, after viewing the body. “Now, I just saw him.”
“His face was suffering,” said Sister Emma, a 76-year-old Italian nun who saw the pope’s body. “I felt a sense of sadness, even though I know he’s in Heaven.”
The crowd cheerfully chanted and clapped hands on the street leading to St. Peter’s Square as it moved slowly toward the basilica. As soon it entered the square, people fell silent as if they were entering a sacred place. It became a procession of mourning, with people holding their hands tightly and whispering the rosary.
After taking a quick glimpse at the pope’s remains as police whispered “Hurry up,” many leaned against the walls of the basilica and sobbed.
Some managed to snap photographs with cell phones as they circled John Paul’s body, clad in a scarlet velvet robe, his head crowned with a white bishop’s miter and a staff topped with a crucifix tucked under his left arm.
“I would like to tell him how much I love him,” said Lorenzo Cardone, 9, waiting in line with his parents.
Earlier, 12 white-gloved pallbearers flanked by Swiss Guards in red-plumed helmets gingerly marched the body from the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, where it had lain in state for prelates and dignitaries, to the basilica as priests chanted the Litany of the Saints.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George said the cardinals prayed for about one hour before the procession started to St. Peter’s. George said the pope looked “at peace, but a man who had suffered.”
Incense wafted through the church where John Paul’s body will be laid to rest in an ancient grotto holding the remains of popes through the ages, after a funeral to be attended under heavy security by President Bush and dozens of other world leaders. Up to 2 million pilgrims are expected in Rome to pay their final respects.
Since the pope’s death Saturday, St. Peter’s Square has been transformed into an outdoor shrine of thousands of candles, farewell letters and notes scribbled on train tickets and tissues fused in puddles of melting candle wax. The scene was reminiscent of the impromptu tributes that swelled in Paris and London after the 1997 car crash that killed Princess Diana.
“Yesterday there was almost nothing here, and now look at it,” said Catherine Pech, who drove 12 hours from Switzerland with her husband and daughter to mourn the pope.
Hours before the body was moved to the basilica, the College of Cardinals – meeting in tradition-bound secrecy – set Friday as the date for the funeral in the first of a series of gatherings preceding their secret vote this month to elect a new pope.
It was not clear if they discussed other issues. Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said there were 65 cardinals attending, while the remaining cardinals were heading to Rome.
John Paul will be buried immediately after the funeral, which will include pageantry reserved for the highest prince of the church. The basilica was designed by Bramante and Michelangelo and dedicated in 1626. It was built on the site where St. Peter is believed to have been buried.
Navarro-Valls said John Paul would “almost surely” be buried in the tomb where Pope John XXIII lay before he was brought up onto the main floor of the basilica. John XXIII was moved after his 2000 beatification because so many pilgrims wanted to visit his tomb, and the grotto is in a cramped underground space.
In London, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Charles postponed his wedding until Saturday so that he could attend the funeral. In Guyana, the 34-nation Organization of American States postponed an election for a new chief.
Cuban President Fidel Castro announced three days of national mourning beginning Sunday, and Hungary will hold a national day of mourning on Friday. But in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern stirred arguments by refusing to do the same.
There had been speculation that the pope might have left orders to be buried in his native Poland, but Navarro-Valls said John Paul “did not show any such wish.”
Poles have hoped the heart of the pope – the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years – might be placed in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, where Polish saints and royalty are buried. Asked if this was ruled out by burial in St. Peter’s, Navarro-Valls did not directly reply, saying he was merely transmitting information on decisions the cardinals made Monday.
Navarro-Valls made no mention of a date for the papal election, or conclave, implying that no such decision had been made. By church law, the conclave must take place within two weeks of the burial.
Archbishop Josef Clemens, secretary of the Vatican office for lay people and a former aide to top Vatican Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said not all the cardinal electors had arrived in time for Monday’s first session. Asked about the atmosphere among the cardinals, he said: “Sad, but hopeful.”