Friday, April 08, 2005

Pope Prepared for Last Journey at Epic Funeral

By Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer

The Pope's simple wooden coffin will be carried out of St. Peter's Basilica at 10.00 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT), the same church where 26 years ago Karol Wojtyla first emerged as pontiff to stun the world with his vitality and charisma.

Four kings, five queens and at least 70 presidents and prime ministers will attend the funeral rites in St. Peter's Square, as an estimated 2 million faithful from every corner of the globe cram the surrounding streets trying to catch a glimpse.

The Polish Pontiff died on Saturday after a decade of suffering and sickness, unleashing a worldwide outpouring of grief within the Roman Catholic Church and beyond.

His crimson-robed body lay in state in St. Peter's Basilica for four days, bringing millions of pilgrims streaming through the Vatican in an epic vigil that almost paralyzed Rome.

"He was a man who moved the world. How can you not love this man? You might not agree with him, but how can you not love him?" said U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The heavy, bronze doors of the basilica were finally closed at 10 p.m. (4 p.m. EDT) on Thursday to give workers time to prepare for the open-air funeral Mass, which is due to last 3 hours.

The Pope's body will be laid in a plain cypress coffin before the ceremony, with a white silk veil placed on his face.

As night fell, thousands of people, many from the Pope's native Poland, bedded down on streets around the Vatican, hoping to be first in line when St. Peter's Square is opened at dawn.


Some 2,500 dignitaries of all faiths and races will also flood into the Renaissance colonnaded square, including President Bush, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, French President Jacques Chirac, Britain's Prince Charles, Mexican President Vicente Fox and an array of Arab leaders.

Alphabetical seating may force sworn enemies to sit side-by-side, with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami facing the prospect of being placed next to Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

Italy closed the airspace over central Rome and called in extra forces, anti-aircraft missiles and patrol boats to guard the funeral of a man who was hailed for his role in ending communism but criticized by some for his strict orthodoxy.

Rome has ordered all public offices, schools and museums to close on Friday and told drivers to keep their cars off the road in an effort to prevent traffic mayhem.

In his last will and testament released on Thursday, the Pope revealed his anguish in 2000 over the long length of his papacy as he entered the new millennium stricken by ailment.

"I hope He (God) helps me understand until what moment I have to continue in this service to which he called me on October 16, 1978," he wrote, referring to the date of his election, asking God for strength to carry out his duties.

He also revealed that he had contemplated being buried in Poland, but later changed his mind and asked only to be buried under the ground. That wish will come about on Friday.

For a Pope who traveled the equivalent of 30 times the circumference of the earth during his reign, his last journey will be the shortest.

After the funeral, his coffin will be carried back into St. Peter's Basilica and laid to rest in a crypt below.

Roman Catholic cardinals have decided to open a conclave to elect a new Pope on April 18.

John Paul's successor faces the daunting task of leading 1.1 billion Catholics in an era marked by tension between religions, between science and ethics, between doctrine and social pressure to change and open up to contraception, women, married priests.

He will also have to try to reverse sliding attendances in the Church's backyard, Europe.

"This Pope has had a problem, and it will be the problem of the future, to have unity in diversity," said Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, seen by some as a possible pope candidate.

(Additional reporting by Rachel Sanderson, Tom Heneghan, Estelle Shirbon, Sophie Hardach, Jane Barrett, Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Rome and the Vatican city)


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