On to eternity

Saturday, April 9, 2005
The wind blows the pages of the Book of Gospels on top of the coffin during the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Friday April 8, 2005. The death of John Paul II has evoked a remarkable outpouring of affection from around the world and brought an estimated 4 million people to Rome in one of the largest religious gatherings in the West in modern times. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher)

VATICAN CITY -- The avenue leading to St. Peter's Square was crammed with pilgrims as far as the eye could see, yet the cool morning air was silent as the homily began. Suddenly, a cry rose up and spread quickly through the hundreds of thousands of faithful:

"Santo! Santo! Santo!"

Even before John Paul II was carried to his grave Friday, mourners appealed to the church to canonize their first global pope. The call echoed throughout the unprecedented gathering of the mighty and the meek. Some carried banners reading "Santo Subito" -- "Immediate Sainthood."

"I'm here not only to pray for him, but also to pray to him, because I believe he's a saint," said Therese Ivers, 24, of Ventura, Calif., holding high an American flag.

In St. Peter's Square, at the center of it all, the book of the Gospels lay on a simple cypress coffin, adorned with a cross and an "M" for the Virgin Mary. A brisk wind lifted the book's pages and rippled the red vestments of cardinals, along with the turbans, fezzes and yarmulkes worn by leaders of other faiths touched by John Paul.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a confidant of the pope and a possible successor, delivered a homily that traced John Paul's path from a factory worker in Nazi-occupied Poland to the leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.

"Our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude," Ratzinger said. Usually unflappable, the German-born cardinal choked with emotion.

Friends and enemies

In a gesture the pope would certainly have applauded, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he shook hands and chatted briefly with the leaders of his country's archenemies, Syria and Iran.

Bells tolled as the delegations took their places on red-cushioned wooden seats. President Bush, accompanied by his predecessors Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, was the first American president to attend a papal funeral.

The 2 1/2-hour Mass began with the Vatican's Sistine Choir singing the Gregorian chant, "Grant Him Eternal Rest, O Lord."

Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, said John Paul was a "priest to the last" who offered his life for God and his flock, "especially amid the sufferings of his final months." He was interrupted by applause at least 10 times.

Twelve white-gloved pallbearers carried the coffin back into St. Peter's Basilica, where it was nested inside a second casket of zinc and a third of walnut.

In a spontaneous gesture of respect, cardinals standing along the aisles removed their "zucchettos," or skull caps as the coffin went by, according to Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. "It was the last tribute to the Holy Father," he said.

In a grotto beneath the basilica, the casket was lowered into the ground in a plot inside a small chapel, between the tombs of two women: Queen Christina of Sweden and Queen Carlotta of Cyprus, said a senior Vatican official.

"Lord, grant him eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon him," said Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who performed the private service.

Despite the crowd's size Friday, there were few disturbances, and strangers shared food, water and umbrellas for shade in an outpouring of kindness that honored John Paul's message. When pilgrims broke out into song, others joined the hymns in different languages.

"We are the generation of John Paul II," said Mara Poole, a 27-year-old housewife from St. Paul, Minn., tears streaming down her face.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican would announce in a few days when the grottoes would be reopened to the public. Keeping them closed was a way of clearing the city of the throngs of pilgrims.

A drizzle began to fall Friday afternoon as exhausted travelers with overstuffed backpacks trudged toward bus and train stations. Poles whose 24-hour trips to Rome had ended only hours earlier got back in their cars for the long drive home.

During the ceremony, at least 300,000 people who camped out overnight on chilly streets filled St. Peter's Square and spilled out onto the Via della Conciliazione. Millions more watched on giant video screens set up across Rome, from university campuses to the Circus Maximus, where ancient Romans held chariot races centuries before Christianity was born.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: