VATICAN CITY, April 6 -- Hundreds of thousands more pilgrims descended upon St. Peter's Square on Wednesday for a last chance to view the body of Pope John Paul II, as the College of Cardinals announced that the conclave to select the new leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics would hold its first session on April 18.
The cardinals, meeting in a pre-conclave for the third day since the pope's death, chose the date after hearing John Paul's spiritual testament, said the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. The will, in effect John Paul's last message to the faithful and the world, will be released publicly on Thursday.
Aerial view shows the line of people crossing the Tiber River in Rome to enter St. Peter's Square to view the pope's body. Those able to join the line before the announced closing time yesterday faced a wait of up to 24 hours.
(Italian Police Photo Via AP)
President Bush and Laura Bush paid their respects before John Paul's body Wednesday night, after coming directly from Rome's airport. They knelt in a pew facing the bier, heads bowed. With them were former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. President Bush will join nearly 200 other world leaders in Vatican City for the funeral Friday.
Navarro-Valls said at a news conference that the 117 cardinals eligible to attend and vote in the conclave would celebrate a morning Mass on April 18, then would be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel to begin the historic task of choosing a new pope. Under church rules, the cardinals will hold at least one ballot that day. If, after about 12 days, no candidate wins two-thirds of the votes, the cardinals may choose to lower the threshold for selection to a simple majority.
The late pope's testament is a 15-page document written in his native Polish. Cardinals, who are sworn to secrecy throughout the period of their closed-door deliberations, would not discuss its contents publicly. But Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, told CNN that the document was a "very, very moving spiritual testament of a man who lived with the Lord."
Navarro-Valls said the huge crowd converging on Rome and the Vatican meant it would not be possible to bring John Paul's body to the basilica of St. John Lateran, which was his seat as bishop of Rome. The body of Pope Pius XII was taken there when he died in 1958. Instead, the funeral will be televised on giant screens to people at St. John Lateran.
The pope will be buried in the grotto beneath St. Peter's Basilica, with a white silk veil on his face. His body will be dressed in liturgical vestments, and his remains will be placed inside the traditional three coffins -- wood, zinc and wood -- which are designed to slow the process of decomposition. A number of commemorative medals and a biography will be buried with him, Archbishop Piero Marini, the chief of liturgical ceremonies, told the Associated Press, but not soil from his native Poland, as many Poles had requested.
City officials appeared overwhelmed by the vast wave of mourners that poured through the streets of Rome into the Vatican enclave Wednesday. Jammed into a 30-foot-wide passageway by police barricades, the throng stretched by midafternoon for at least 1 1/2 miles.
From Via della Conciliazione, the main boulevard opening onto St. Peter's Square, it ran back through ancient cobblestone alleyways, around the old city walls and across the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge into central Rome, where it halted traffic.
People were filing past the pope's crimson-robed body lying in state at St. Peter's Basilica at a rate of about 18,000 an hour, a flow that was stopped briefly when the Bushes and Clinton arrived.
Officials announced that they would bar people from joining the line at 10 p.m. and sent out text messages on cell phones and flashed warnings on highway signs about the closure. They estimated that it could take until Thursday evening for all those already in line to file past the pope's body.
Some, like Gian Lagrenza, 30, a student from Frosinone, Italy, said he was prepared to wait, no matter how long it took. "More than other popes, he was the best," said Lagrenza.
Others reluctantly gave up. Barba Janka, 52, of Zamosc, Poland, tried twice with her 84-year-old mother to reach the basilica where the pope lay in state. "We started at 7 a.m., but by noon we were too tired, hot and hungry," she said. "Then we got some pizza, felt better and got back in line."
By 3 p.m., however, they were sitting back to back, shoes off, on a shady sidewalk. "We feel so badly we came all this way and weren't able to make it," she said.
Hundreds of thousands of Poles are expected to pour into Rome over the next day, but their presence was already evident throughout the city. Milena Marcinek, 21, a college student from Poznan, arrived Tuesday night with three friends who had hitchhiked for two days and nights. They each came with 20 euros -- about $26 -- and the food they had grabbed from their refrigerator. But all along the way, they said, motorists stopped to give them rides and food after learning the purpose of their journey.
They planned to spend the night camped out in one of the large makeshift dormitories that the city of Rome has set up at the fairgrounds, medical center and Olympic stadium on the outskirts of town. "We're young -- for us it's no problem to sleep on the grass," Marcinek said.
Other people came just for the day and left as soon as they viewed the pope's body. The Rev. Don Silvio, 39, brought a busload of 54 Italian teenagers from Varese, a city near Milan. They left Tuesday at 4 p.m., arrived in Rome at midnight and headed straight for St. Peter's, where they spent a sleepless night waiting in line for 12 hours. Afterward, they headed back to their bus, parked at the stadium, for the long ride home.
"The Holy Father made many sacrifices for us, and the least we can do is offer a small sacrifice for him," Silvio said.
Special correspondent Billy Magnuson contributed to this report.