Disappointed pilgrims were blocked by police from viewing Pope John Paul II’s body, as overwhelmed authorities tried to clear the last million mourners already in line before tomorrow’s funeral.
The ever-lengthening line of people that formed outside St Peter’s Basilica since Monday, when the Pope’s crimson-robed body was put on public view, caught Vatican officials unprepared, Waiting time stretched from a few hours in the first few days to 24 hours yesterday.
Pilgrims were rewarded with a view of the revered pontiff lasting a mere few seconds.
Text messages on Italian mobile phone networks warned subscribers, “St Peters full” and access to the line would end as of 10pm yesterday. “Friday for funeral stop traffic in Rome,” said the message from the Civil Defence Department. Similar messages were flashed on electronic road signs.
“Open, Open,” chanted a small crowd who fell on the wrong side of the barricade erected by police as the cut-off point about an hour later than scheduled.
“We just arrived and we’re a little angry because we can’t get in,” Rossana Zampelli, 25, who came from a town east of Naples. “We would like to at least get into St Peter’s to pray. It doesn’t matter if we don’t manage see the pope. We are resigned,” she said.
Among the most disappointed pilgrims were likely to be some two million Poles travelling from John Paul’s native country to pay tribute to the man credited with helping to end communism in Poland and unite Europe.
US president George Bush, his father George Bush senior and Bill Clinton, came through a VIP entrance for a private tribute, kneeling at the side of John Paul’s bier and folding their hands in silent prayer.
They were among the monarchs, presidents and heads of government from more than 100 countries who have begun arriving for a funeral that will be marked by solemn pageantry. John Paul died on Saturday, aged 84.
Italian authorities readied anti-aircraft rocket launchers among security measures to protect the dignitaries converging on Rome for the pomp-filled funeral. Naval boats will patrol the Tiber River that marks the boundary of Vatican City, and missile-armed ships will guard the coastline.
As they planned the transition from John Paul’s eventful 26-year reign, the College of Cardinals set April 18 as the start of its conclave to elect a successor, a papal election with new rules and new technologies.
With 3,500 accredited journalists watching, the 116 cardinals expected to chose the next pope will be mindful of the warning in a document by John Paul to abide by their vow of secrecy – or face “grave penalties according to the judgment of the future pope”.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the cardinals would celebrate a morning Mass on April 18, then be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel in the early afternoon for their first ballot.
In past conclaves, the so-called “princes of the church” were locked in the Apostolic Palace, crammed into tiny makeshift cubicles without running water and limited toilet facilities.
But John Paul, in a 1996 change, said the cardinals would be housed in a hotel within the Vatican walls that he had built. Each cardinal now has a private room and bath.
Also unlike previous conclaves, the electors would be free to roam the Vatican, though they are forbidden from communicating with anyone outside. The Sistine Chapel and other areas will be swept for any electronic listening devices.
According to church law, prelates are expected to hold at least one ballot on the first day of a conclave. If no one gets the required two-thirds majority after about 12 days, cardinals may change procedure and elect the Pope by simple majority.
John Paul’s spiritual testament, read yesterday to the cardinals, was a 15-page document written in his native Polish over the course of his pontificate starting in 1979, a year after he was elected. It would be released in Polish and Italian today, said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
It did not name the mystery cardinal he created in 2003, Navarro-Valls said. John Paul created the “in pectore” or ”in the heart” cardinal in his last consistory. The formula is used when the Pope wants to name a cardinal from a country where the church is oppressed.