Finally at rest after years of debilitating disease, Pope John Paul II’s body lay in state today in the frescoed Apostolic Palace as the world mourned his passing and the Vatican prepared for the ritual-filled funeral and conclave that will elect his successor.
An estimated 100,000 people turned out for a morning Mass in the Vatican City and thousands more – tourists, Romans, young and old – kept coming throughout the day, a sea of humanity filling the broad boulevard leading to St. Peter’s Basilica. They clutched rosaries and newspaper photos of John Paul as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in St. Peter’s Square to pray for the soul of “our beloved John Paul.”
“Today, while we weep for the departure of the pope who left us, we open our hearts to the vision of our eternal destiny,” Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s No. 2 official, said in his homily.
“For a quarter century, he brought the Gospel of Christian hope to all the piazzas of the world, teaching all of us that our death is nothing but the passage toward the homeland in the sky,” he said.
Bells tolled and pilgrims wept in remembrance of the Polish-born pope, who reigned for longer than all but two of his predecessors and was credited with helping bring down communism in Europe and spreading a message of peace around the world.
The Vatican said the pontiff died at 9.37pm local time (8.37pm Irish time) Saturday of septic shock and cardio-circulatory collapse. He was 84.
The mourning began with an overnight vigil in St Peter’s Square after the world learned of the death of the pontiff in his studio apartment.
Early Sunday, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the late pope’s vicar for Rome, issued a formal announcement of John Paul’s death to the people of Rome, in keeping with Vatican tradition.
“John Paul held his hand to us young people,” said 21-year-old Alessio Bussolotti, who drove to Rome on Sunday morning with his fellow Boy Scouts from the Italian city of Ancona. “Now we have to give him ours.”
The written text of Sodano’s homily called the late pope ”John Paul the Great,” a title usually designated for popes worthy of sainthood, such as Gregory the Great and Leo the Great. Sodano did not use the title when he delivered the homily, and there was no explanation.
Vatican texts, however, are considered official texts even if they are not pronounced.
Applause rang out when Sodano, dressed in golden vestments, prayed for the pope’s soul.
“We entrust with confidence to the risen Christ, Lord of life and history, our beloved John Paul II who for 27 years guided the universal church as the successor of Peter,” he said.
After the Mass ended, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, who became the pope’s public “voice” in the final weeks of his life, read the traditional Sunday noontime prayer, which John Paul delivered throughout his pontificate.
The crowd applauded when Sandri announced that the late pope had actually prepared the prayer himself before he died – perhaps one of John Paul’s last written documents – saying he was reading it “with such honour, but also such nostalgia.”
“It’s a historic event,” said Ercole Ferri, a 72-year-old Roman who proudly showed off a list of the six popes he has lived through. “It’s not something sad for me. I think of all that he has done.”
“I think more about how hard it will be for a new one to follow in his footsteps,” he added.
Once the Mass ended, cardinals, prelates, Italian government officials and diplomats gathered in the frescoed Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, where John Paul’s body lay in state. Images of the ceremony, beamed around the world on television, gave the world their first look at the pope since he had died.
John Paul was dressed in crimson vestments and white bishop’s mitre on his head. His crossed hands clutched a rosary, and his pastoral staff was tucked under his left arm. A Swiss Guard stood on either side of him as the faithful paid their respects at his feet.
“Our Holy Father looks very much at peace. It was very satisfying for all of us to see him so serene,” Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said after paying his respects.
“His life is finished and he gave up his spirit,” he said.
John Paul’s body is to be transferred from the Apostolic Palace to St Peter’s Basilica for public viewing on Monday afternoon.
Also tomorrow, the first preparatory meeting of the College of Cardinals – the red-capped “princes of the church” who now officially govern the one billion-strong Roman Catholic Church – was scheduled to take place.
This is not the conclave to elect the pope, but rather a series of preparatory meetings that will decide dates for when the conclave will begin and the rites surrounding John Paul’s funeral and burial. The Vatican said the funeral was expected between Wednesday and Friday. The conclave must begin between 15 and 20 days from the pope’s death.
The cardinals will also read John Paul’s final instructions, including his choice of burial place. Most popes in recent centuries have asked to be buried in the crypts below St Peter’s Basilica, but some have suggested the first Polish-born pope might have chosen to be laid to rest in his native country.
In addition, the cardinals will arrange during these meetings for the destruction of John Paul’s Fisherman’s Ring and the dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters – formal gestures meant to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries.
On the sidelines of these meetings, cardinals will certainly be sizing each other up as possible “papabili,” or having the qualities to be the next pope.
Cardinal Bernard Panafieu, one of five French prelates who can vote, said Sunday he was hoping for someone “who dynamizes the people – God’s people – as John Paul II did. At the same time, a man who has an international sense, of the opening of Catholicism to the world. An open man and at the same time, a man faithful to the great traditions of the Church.”
John Paul was 58 when the cardinals elected him the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
He survived a 1981 assassination attempt, but in his later years was the picture of frailty, weighed down by Parkinson’s disease and crippling knee and hip ailments. Although he continued his travels, he was too weak to continue his famous gesture of kissing the ground when he arrived at his destinations.
In hospital twice in the past two months after breathing crises, and fitted with a breathing tube and a feeding tube, John Paul became a picture of suffering and courage as his death approached.