The world’s Catholics are looking to the College of Cardinals to begin the difficult task of choosing a worthy successor to Pope John Paul II today, as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who filled Rome to bursting for the pontiff’s funeral began their journey home.
Police cleared out the last few hundred people from St Peter’s Square last night and blocked it off with metal barricades, breaking up groups of Poles who stood in a circle in the drizzle, praying under their umbrellas.
Police estimated four million pilgrims travelled to Rome during the week to pay their respects to the Pope. Italy’s minister of the interior, Giuseppe Pisanu, said last night that 1.4 million pilgrims walked through the doors of St Peter’s Basilica to see the Pope’s body – a rate of 350 people a minute.
The College of Cardinals begins its conclave on April 18 to elect a successor, a papal election with new rules and new technologies. The number of cardinal electors under 80 and therefore eligible to vote is 117, but one is too ill to attend.
Their challenge will be to find a successor that can measure up to John Paul, whose popularity was undimmed by his conservatism and who helped the church spread in Africa and Asia. He made unprecedented strides in opening contacts with other Christian denominations, Jews and Muslims. He made the first papal visit to a mosque – during a visit to Syria in 2001, and sought forgiveness for Jewish suffering at the hands of Catholics.
His efforts were evident at his funeral, attended by dignitaries from 138 countries. Their diversity reflected the extraordinary mix of faiths and cultures that John Paul courted during his 26-year papacy: Orthodox bishops in long black robes, Jews in yarmulkes, Arabs in chequered headscarves, Central Asians in lambskin caps and Western political leaders in dark suits.
Yesterday, hundreds of thousands filled St. Peter’s Square for the funeral. Others watched on 24 giant video screens set up around Rome, from university campuses to the Circus Maximus where ancient Romans held chariot races centuries before Christianity was born.
John Paul was buried in one of the largest funerals the world has seen. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – a close confidant of the late 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 one billion Catholics.
He was then laid to rest in the Vatican grottoes, the cramped, narrow passageways below the existing basilica and above the one built by the emperor Constantine. The grottoes hold the remains of popes of centuries past, including the tomb traditionally believed to be that of the apostle Peter, the first pope.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican would announce in a few days when the grottoes would reopen to the public. Keeping them closed was clearly a way of clearing the city of the huge throngs of pilgrims.
Across Africa, Asia and the Americas, church bells tolled and millions of people gathered in open fields, sports stadiums, town squares and cathedrals to watch the funeral on giant screens. Millions more mourned privately at home.
Live footage was beamed across the Middle East by the pan-Arab television station al-Jazeera, and Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs joined Roman Catholics in church services and prayers throughout Asia to honour a pope who reached out to other faiths.