Millions Bid Farewell at Pope John Paul II's Funeral

By Tracy Wilkinson and Richard Boudreaux

Los Angeles Times

April 8, 2005

VATICAN CITY — With the world he once mesmerized watching, Pope John Paul II was laid in a simple cypress coffin today and eulogized on the steps of St. Peter's church in a grand funeral that drew millions of pilgrims and leaders from all corners of the earth.

The Polish-born pontiff, whose death April 2 ended the third-longest papacy in history, was buried in a marble crypt below the basilica, the place of rest for many of John Paul's predecessors through the ages.

In a 2-hour, 40-minute ceremony of resplendent ritual and emotional homage, priests blessed the pope's remains and celebrated his life before an audience reflecting the political clout of the global elite and the simple admiration of common folk.

The funeral Mass was punctuated by cheers and applause. People in the crowd chanted "Saint! Saint!" and "John Paul!"

German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful dean of the College of Cardinals and a close confidante of John Paul, led the service. He remembered the boy who grew up in Nazi Poland and the sharp intellect who chose the priesthood.

"Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality," Ratzinger said. "Our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time, of joyful hope and profound gratitude."

At the conclusion of the public portion of the ceremony, 12 white-gloved pallbearers lifted the wooden casket to their shoulders, strode to the massive portals of St. Peter's Basilica, then turned back toward the crowd to allow a final goodbye.

Inside the crypt, where public access was not granted, the coffin was sealed in red ribbon, encased in zinc and then placed in another wooden casket. It was buried in the ground, not in a sarcophagus as is tradition, per John Paul's wishes.

Ratzinger's homily was interrupted at least 10 times by applause, notably when he mentioned the pope's dedication to the young and his very public struggle with disability and death.

Ratzinger recalled one of the final appearances of the pope at his apartment window overlooking St. Peter's Square, on Easter Sunday, when he struggled mightily to bless the crowds below, but he was no longer able to speak.

"We can be sure that our beloved pope is now at the window of the house of the Father, and he sees us and he blesses us," Ratzinger said.

Ratzinger's sermon focused on Jesus' words to Peter, the apostle who became the first pope. Jesus asks Peter to follow him and to care for his flock, essentially installing him at the front of the long line of men who would become maximum leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Dost thou love me? In that case, feed my flock," Ratzinger quoted Jesus as telling Peter. And like Peter, Ratzinger said, Karol Wojtyla was called to tend the flock and has now returned to Christ.

As the requiem Mass got underway, the Sistine Chapel choir sang hymns and a series of readers intoned selections from the Bible. Sunlight broke through clouds in a blue-silver sky while a brisk wind whipped the cassocks and vestments of the gathered prelates. Later, the skies grew darker.

A tapestry portraying the resurrection of Christ hung above the massive church portals.

Official delegations represented more than 70 countries, from Afghanistan to, controversially, Zimbabwe.

The humble and haughty, the powerful and penitent, European royalty, queens in black veils, Arab sheiks in flowing robes, Latin presidents in business suits — they sat in the front rows arrayed in the square. To the back, pilgrims, backpackers and the Roman faithful, young and old, jostled for space.

Also in attendance was a remarkable collection of rival faiths. Leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church, senior Jewish rabbis and Muslim clerics joined representatives of every Christian denomination, testament to John Paul's ability to reach out across traditional lines of religious demarcation.

It was one of the largest such gatherings in the West in modern times and rivaled some of the huge audiences he drew while alive in places like the Philippines.

President George Bush led the American delegation, becoming the first sitting president to attend a papal funeral. He was one of the last dignitaries to be escorted to his seat, where he and his wife, Laura, were placed in a second row next to Jacques Chirac of France. King Juan Carlos of Spain was in the front row with Queen Sofia.

The formula for the seating arrangement was complicated and was based in part on the number of years a country has had diplomatic ties with the Vatican and the level of the delegation.

Cardinals in blood-red vestments, who will meet later this month to select John Paul's successor, sat behind the altar, while bishops in purple filled front rows to the left of the square, designed by Bernini in the 17th century. Two cardinals arrived in wheelchairs.

Many in the enormous crowd waved signs declaring John Paul a saint: "Santo Subito!" "Sainthood Now!" Others waved the red and white flags from the pope's homeland and chanted "Polska! Polska!" before the Mass began, and bursts of applause were frequent — all unusual for such a solemn occasion, but symbolic of the popular appeal of the 20th century's greatest pope.

John Paul, who died at the age of 84 after many illnesses, had lain in state inside the basilica since Monday, viewed by hundreds of thousands of mournful people.

Before the public ceremony began this morning, a private ritual unfolded. The pope's loyal Polish secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, draped a white silk veil on the dead man's face and muttered a prayer asking that he see the eternal light and the face of Christ. The custom has not been used for centuries and was a throwback to times when the heads of bishops were wrapped in white cloth.

Dziwisz was joined by Archbishop Piero Marini, the master of liturgical ceremonies. Inside the coffin, they placed a pouch of silver and bronze medals and a scroll recounting the dead man's life.

Twelve pallbearers in white gloves and tails carried John Paul's tapered coffin from inside the basilica to the steps. Made of blond cypress and emblazoned with the papal emblem, a simple cross and the letter M for Mary, the coffin was set on an ornate silk carpet. The pallbearers, known as the Pope's Gentlemen, bowed and walked away. The audience stood and applauded.

Marini placed a red copy of the Scriptures on the coffin. Liturgy requires that wind blow the pages to show the presence of the Holy Spirit. The wind was strong, however, and soon the book was closed.

Ratzinger struck a tone that was reverential but also familiar and more emotional than had been expected of the man known as the hard-line enforcer of church doctrine.

Officiates read prayers and biblical passages in more than a dozen languages, a bow to the universality of the church that John Paul had especially celebrated and expanded with his planet-wide travels.

Prelates from the Eastern rite churches, loyal to the pope but following Byzantine customs, blessed John Paul's remains with incense and sang ancient prayers. The litany of the saints, a haunting intonation of saints' names, followed.

Security was tight but somewhat discreet. A single helicopter flew overhead during the funeral and metal detectors were installed at some distance from the square, though even a few bishops in full regalia had to be cleared.

The multitudes virtually doubled Rome's normal population. Reminiscent of ancient times when pilgrims journeyed from the far reaches of the Roman Empire, hundreds of thousands of people camped out on cobblestone streets and in the onetime site of chariot races — all to await their chance to say goodbye.

Only a fraction of the mourners were able to cram themselves into St. Peter's Square and the Via della Conciliazione, the wide boulevard that runs directly from the plaza. The rest were watching on enormous screens set up all over Rome.