Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Vatican to Open John Paul's Tomb

By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writer

VATICAN CITY - The tomb is a white slab of marble with gray streaks, tucked into an arched alcove, a leafy potted lily at the top and a small red candle burning at the bottom. A marble relief of the Madonna and Child hangs on the wall.

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Pope John Paul II's name and the dates of his 26-year pontificate are carved with gold in Latin script on the front: "IOANNES PAVLVS PPII." And on another line is the date, using the Roman numerals for the month: "16 X, 1978-2 IV, 2005."

Underneath is the interlocking X and P — the monogram for Christ.

On Wednesday, the Vatican will reopen the grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica to the public, giving tourists and the faithful a first look at the late pope's tomb, tucked into its own private niche just steps from the supposed burial place of the first pontiff, St. Peter.

Journalists got a glimpse of the grottoes Tuesday ahead of the public viewing, which was to begin at 7 a.m. and is sure to draw thousands of people back to St. Peter's Square. The piazza had all but emptied in the days following John Paul's funeral Friday, which drew some 500,000 people to the square and main boulevard leading to it.

John Paul specified in his will that he wanted to be buried "in the bare earth, not a tomb" and that he wanted his tombstone simple, like that of Paul VI. His wishes were granted.

His burial plot is one of only a few dug in the ground in the central nave of the grottoes, the vast series of low-ceilinged chapels and alcoves under the basilica where popes over the centuries have been buried.

Most of the popes are ensconced in aboveground marble sarcophagi, some of them like that of Benedict XV and Pius XI elaborately carved in the images of the man inside.

John Paul's tomb, on the other hand, is spare. It sits in an arched alcove to the right of the main altar of the central nave.

The alcove lies just a few steps from two of the four women buried in the grotto: Queen Christine of Sweden, who died in 1689 after abdicating and converting to Catholicism; and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus, who died in 1487 after taking refuge in Rome under papal protection following her ouster.

Just beyond is the "Confession," the intimate space decorated with lanterns and bright green and red marble that sits over the supposed site of Peter's tomb.

The Vatican closed the grottoes in a bid to clear the city of the 3 million pilgrims who had come to pay their last respects to John Paul. The public can get to the grottoes through a stairwell in the basilica.

The College of Cardinals, who have been holding a series of meetings this week to prepare for the April 18 conclave, got a chance to view the grotto Tuesday for the first time since the burial. Previously, only high-ranking prelates and members of the papal household had been given access.

Two by two, they went to the tomb and bowed before it.

Earlier Tuesday during their pre-conclave meeting, the cardinals began serious discussions about the state of the church in the world, including its finances, said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani, the Vatican's economic chief, briefed the men on the consolidated financial statements for 2004 and on some key points for 2005, a statement said.

It was the second in a row day that the cardinals discussed church finances during their pre-conclave meetings — an indication of the seriousness of the issue confronting the "princes of the church" as they try to determine who is best to lead the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics in the future.

Navarro-Valls said the cardinals also discussed more mundane topics, including how they will be transported from their Vatican hotel, Domus Sanctae Marthae, to the Sistine Chapel and back each day. The two buildings are a few hundred yards from one another, and the route takes cardinals back behind St. Peter's, along a road ringed on one side by the Vatican gardens.

Outside in St. Peter's Square, special edition Vatican stamps went on sale Tuesday. The "vacant see" stamps mark the period between John Paul's death and the election of his successor, and were being snapped up quickly by collectors.

"The more the pope is worth, the more the stamps are worth," said Giovanna Turitto, a 72-year-old retiree waiting to buy them.


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