- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

VATICAN CITY — The eyes of the world turned to the simple wooden casket of Pope John Paul II yesterday, as powerful rulers joined humble pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square to send the much-loved pontiff on his final journey.

The 21/2-hour funeral ceremony, beamed live to billions on television, included almost unnoticed but extraordinary gestures of reconciliation.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav shook the hand of two mortal enemies of the Jewish state, President Bashar Assad of Syria and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

Britain’s Prince Charles gripped the hand of Robert Mugabe, the flamboyant leader of Zimbabwe who defied a European Union travel ban to come to Rome.

Applause rang out, led by the Italians among the 300,000 people fortunate enough to have made it inside St. Peter’s Square, as millions of others watched on giant television screens throughout Rome.

A cross and an “M,” for the Virgin Mary, decorated the casket made of cypress wood, which symbolizes humanity. The casket rested on a bier on a carpet in front of the altar.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presided over the solemn ceremony amid gusts of cool wind.

“Our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude,” Cardinal Ratzinger said.

Usually unflappable, the German-born cardinal choked with emotion. “Santo, Santo” the crowd responded, waving banners reading “Santo Subito” — “Immediate Sainthood.”

Cardinal Ratzinger traced the pontiff’s life from his days as a mine worker in Nazi-occupied Poland to his last public appearance at Easter from the window of his apartment above the square.

John Paul tried but was unable to speak that day as he began a final period of agony from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He died the following Saturday.

Dignitaries from 138 countries reflected the extraordinary mix of faiths and cultures that John Paul courted during his 26-year papacy: Orthodox hierarchs in long black robes, Jews in yarmulkes, Arabs in checkered head scarves, Central Asians in lambskin caps and Western political leaders in dark suits.

Bells tolled as the delegations took their places on red-cushioned wooden seats. President Bush, accompanied by his predecessors, Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush, was the first American president to attend a papal funeral.

The Mass began with the Vatican’s Sistine Choir singing the Gregorian chant, “Grant Him Eternal Rest, O Lord.”

Cardinal Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, said John Paul was a “priest to the last” who offered his life for God and his flock, “especially amid the sufferings of his final months.” He was interrupted by applause at least 10 times.

The Mass ended with cardinals, dignitaries and pilgrims standing and singing: “May the angels accompany you into heaven, may the martyrs welcome you when you arrive, and lead you to Holy Jerusalem.”

Twelve white-gloved pallbearers carried the coffin back into St. Peter’s Basilica, where it was nested inside a second casket of zinc and a third of walnut.

In a spontaneous gesture of respect, cardinals standing along the aisles removed their “zucchettos,” or skull caps, as the coffin went by, said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington. “It was the last tribute to the Holy Father.”

In a grotto beneath the basilica, the casket was lowered into the ground in a plot inside a small chapel.

“Lord, grant him eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon him,” said Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who performed the private interment service.

The Vatican grottoes — cramped, narrow passageways below the existing basilica — hold the remains of popes of centuries past, including the tomb traditionally believed to hold those of the apostle Peter, the first pope. Royals and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II are also buried there.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican would announce in a few days when the grottoes would be reopened to the public. Keeping them closed was a way of clearing the city of the throngs of pilgrims.

A drizzle began to fall yesterday afternoon as exhausted travelers with overstuffed backpacks trudged toward bus and train stations. Poles whose 24-hour trips to Rome had ended only hours earlier got back in their cars, buses and trains for the long drive home.

During the ceremony, at least 300,000 people who camped out overnight on chilly streets filled St. Peter’s Square and spilled out onto the Via della Conciliazione.

Millions more watched on giant video screens set up across Rome, from university campuses to the Circus Maximus, where ancient Romans held chariot races centuries before Christianity was born.

Despite the crowd’s size yesterday, there were few disturbances, and strangers shared food, water and umbrellas for shade in an outpouring of kindness that honored John Paul’s message. When pilgrims broke out into song, others joined the hymns in different languages.

“We are the generation of John Paul II,” said Mara Poole, 27, a housewife from St. Paul, Minn., tears streaming down her face.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles who came for the funeral waved their red-and-white national flag. Some carried banners with the logo of “Solidarity,” the Polish labor movement the pope supported in his confrontations with communism.

“He was all people’s father, especially for us, the Poles,” said Dominika Bolechowska, 29, a teacher from the pope’s favorite mountain town of Zakopane, who traveled 28 hours by bus and spent a night on the streets with her 2-year-old son.

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 large screens. Millions more mourned privately at home.

Live footage was beamed across the Middle East by the television station al-Jazeera, and Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs joined Roman Catholics in church services and prayers throughout Asia.

Rome itself, where an estimated 4 million pilgrims doubled the population, was at a standstill as extraordinary security measures went in place.

“The entire world is here,” said Sister Claudira Ribeira Santos, a Brazilian nun. “John Paul managed to speak for all humanity in an era of wars and natural disasters, for peace and reconciliation. He tore down the walls of countries, of classes, of religions.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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