Millions Bid Farewell to Pope at Funeral

AP Photo
AP Photo

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Presidents, prime ministers and kings joined pilgrims and prelates in St. Peter's Square on Friday to bid farewell to Pope John Paul II at a funeral service that drew millions to Rome for one of the largest religious gatherings of modern times.

Applause rang out as John Paul's simple wooden coffin adorned with a cross and an "M" for Mary was brought out from St. Peter's Basilica and placed on a carpet in front of the altar. The book of the Gospel was placed on the coffin and the wind lifted the pages.

The Vatican 's Sistine Choir sang the Gregorian chant, "Grant Him Eternal Rest, O Lord," and the service got under way. Cardinals wearing white miters walked onto the square, their red vestments blowing in the breeze.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, a close confidant of John Paul and a possible successor, presided at the Mass and referred to him as our "late beloved pope" in a homily that traced the pontiff's life from his days as a factory worker in Nazi-occupied Poland to his final days as the head of the world's 1 billion Catholics.

Interrupted by applause at least 10 times, the usually unflappable German-born Ratzinger choked up as he recalled one of John Paul's last public appearances — when he blessed the faithful from his studio window on Easter.

"We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the father's house, that he sees us and blesses us," he said to applause, even among the prelates, as he pointed up to the third-floor window above the square.

"Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality — our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude," Ratzinger said in heavily accented Italian.

He said John Paul was a "priest to the last" and said he had offered his life for God and his flock "especially amid the sufferings of his final months." Ratzinger was interrupted again toward the end of the Mass by several minutes of cheers, rhythmic applause and shouts of "Giovanni Paolo Santo" or "Saint John Paul," from the crowd.

At the beginning of the Mass, Ratzinger prayed for God to "grant your servant and our pope, John Paul II, who in the love of Christ led your church, to share with the flock entrusted to him the reward promised to the faithful ministers of the Gospel."

After the 2 1/2-hour Mass, the body will be carried deep under the basilica, where it will join the remains of popes from throughout the ages near the traditional tomb of the apostle Peter, the first pope.

John Paul requested in his last will and testament to be buried "in the bare earth," and his body will be laid to rest under the floor of the grotto below the basilica. His tomb will be covered with a flat stone bearing his name and the dates of his birth and death. Plgrims will eventually be able to visit.

At least 300,000 people filled St. Peter's Square and spilled out onto the wide Via della Conciliazione leading toward the Tiber River, but millions of others watched on giant video screens set up across Rome. Banners read "Santo Subito," or "Sainthood Immediately."

Earlier, groggy pilgrims who had camped out on the cobblestones awoke in their sleeping bags to hordes of the faithful stepping over them as they tried to secure a good spot to view the Mass.

The square and the boulevard leading to it were a sea of red and white flags waved by pilgrims from John Paul's beloved Poland, many in traditional dress shouting "Polska! Polska!" Pilgrims from other countries raised their national flags in the crowd — American, Lebanese, Spanish, Croatian — and prayers were read out during the Mass in a host of languages — French, Swahili, Portuguese, among others.

"We just wanted to say goodbye to our father for the last time," said Joanna Zmijewsla, 24, who traveled for 30 hours with her brother from a town near Kielce, Poland, arriving at St. Peter's at 1 a.m. Friday.

American Archbishop James Harvey, head of papal protocol, greeted dignitaries and religious leaders as they emerged onto the steps of the basilica. Many shook Harvey's hand and offered condolences before mingling and taking their appointed seats.

Turbans, fezzes, yarmulkes, black lace veils, or mantillas, joined the "zucchettos," or skull caps, of Catholic prelates on the steps of St. Peter's in an extraordinary mix of religious and government leaders from around the world.

"I'm here because I'm a believer but also to live a moment in history," said Stephan Aubert, wearing a French flag draped over his shoulders. Bells tolled as the final leaders took their places on red-cushioned wooden seats.

Ten minutes before the scheduled start of the funeral, the U.S. delegation arrived, headed by President Bush, and including his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton. President Bush sat on the aisle in the second row, next to his wife, Laura. Beside them were French President Jacques Chirac and his wife, Bernadette. The two presidents shook hands.

Vatican ushers dressed in white tie and tails seated dignitaries who were given a chance to view John Paul's body before it was carried out of the basilica — where it has lain in state since Monday — and into the square.

Rome itself was at a standstill. Just after midnight Thursday, a ban took effect on vehicle traffic in the city center. Airspace was closed, and anti-aircraft batteries outside the city were on alert. Naval ships patrolled both the Mediterranean coast and the Tiber River near Vatican City, the tiny sovereign city-state encompassed by the Italian capital.

Italian authorities took extraordinary precautions to protect the royalty and heads of state or government attending the funeral. Elite Carabinieri paramilitary police armed with automatic rifles were stationed at virtually every major intersection in Rome to minimize the threat of a terrorist attack on the more than 80 heads of state and monarchs attending the Mass.

Combat jets from Italy's air force, joined by an AWACS surveillance plane deployed by N ATO, guarded against any strike from above on the leaders and top Roman Catholic prelates assembled on St. Peter's Square. Italian security agencies posted snipers on rooftops, and a navy warship armed with torpedoes cruised the coastline near Rome.

Anti-aircraft rocket launchers were placed strategically around the capital. Jewish and Muslim leaders were among the dignitaries from more than 80 countries, including the presidents of Syria and Iran, and the king of Jordan.

Associated Press