VATICAN CITY -- A single usher stood before the white slab marking the grave. Politely, he accepted religious trinkets from pilgrims filing past beyond the ropes, placing them briefly on the gravestone for a blessing and handing them back.
A woman gave him a rosary. A man presented him a small pile of medals.
Then a woman handed him a single red rose.
The usher placed the flower on the tomb and handed it back.
No, she signaled -- this was for John Paul II.
Thousands of people lined up Wednesday for a chance to pass briefly by John Paul's grave after the Vatican opened the site to the public. While the numbers didn't compare to the 3 million pilgrims who descended on Rome last week to view the pope's body and attend his funeral, the emotions were no weaker.
"I felt at total peace. Every hair on my body just stood up," said Catherine Creen, a 60-year-old New Yorker who met John Paul in 2000. "It's the same feeling I had when I saw him alive. He continues to reach out to people in death."
Above ground, cardinals discussed the state of the Roman Catholic Church and prepared for their conclave next week to select John Paul's successor. Italian newspapers reported that support for conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was building among them.
Below, just steps from the traditional grave site of the apostle Peter, the church's first pope, the faithful paid their respects. Pilgrims knelt in prayer, some with tears streaming down their faces.
In an apparent effort to avoid the lines that stretched up to three miles to see the pope's body last week, the ushers kept the crowd moving quickly at St. Peter's Basilica. Many pilgrims said they didn't even realize they were at the grave until they had already walked past.
"We've been in Rome for three days waiting for this moment, and we felt a little defrauded," said Silvano Loayza, a 61-year-old Peruvian who lives in Tracy, Calif. "There wasn't even time to pray. The man kept saying, 'Avanti, avanti, avanti.'"
But many pilgrims emerged feeling that they had made some kind of connection with the pope. Some said they had come not only to pray for John Paul, but also to pray to him. Many Roman Catholics believe John Paul, who died April 2 at age 84, was a saint.
"I'm hoping maybe for a little miracle. I'm praying to him that my husband gets his eyesight back," said Myrna Palmer, 67, of Hagerstown, Md. Her husband, Gorman, lost sight in one eye after chemotherapy.
Pilgrims lined up in the crisp morning air as early as 4 a.m., three hours before the grottoes were reopened. The faithful murmured Hail Marys in Italian, English, Spanish and Polish as they waited.
Some of the cardinals prayed by the grave Tuesday evening, wearing crimson robes and tall white bishops' miters.
On Wednesday, 140 of them discussed the state of the church and some technical matters, the Vatican said. They also accepted formal condolences on John Paul's death from ambassadors to the Vatican.
The conclave, which begins Monday, will be the first for all but two of the 115 cardinals who will cast ballots. If recent history is any guide, the voting may go quickly. Of the eight 20th century conclaves, no election went longer than five days. It took just three days to choose the archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, in 1978.
The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that at least 40 cardinals have voiced some backing for Ratzinger. Another newspaper, La Repubblica, put the number of possible Ratzinger backers at 50.
The reports could not be independently verified. The cardinals have agreed not to talk to the media until after the conclave, and the pre-conclave meetings are private. To become pope, a candidate needs a two-thirds majority, or 77 votes.
Ratzinger, who leads a Vatican office that oversees and enforces church doctrine, had close ties to John Paul. But he will turn 78 on Saturday and could face challenges from cardinals who want a younger pontiff.
The newspapers said the blocs opposed to Ratzinger have not united around a single name.
The Italian cardinals -- the biggest national group with 20 in the conclave -- could favor Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the 71-year-old archbishop of Milan. But hopes among Latin Americans run high that their region could claim the papacy for the first time. Leading candidates appear to include Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 70, of Brazil, and Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, 62, of Honduras.
Two Belgians eager to see their countryman, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, as pontiff held aloft a banner reading "Godfried for Pope" on Wednesday. Police escorted them off St. Peter's Square.