VATICAN CITY, April 8 -- Before they carried Pope John Paul II through the Door of the Dead to his burial place in St. Peter's Basilica, the 12 Vatican pallbearers slowly turned his cypress coffin so he would face his flock one last time.
The 300,000 or more mourners on St. Peter's Square on Friday morning -- a kneeling, standing, tearful and radiant throng of Croatian students, Filipina nuns, American teenagers and other pilgrims from countless countries -- momentarily froze. Then came the cries from throughout the crowd: Giovanni Paolo! Santo Subito! John Paul! Sainthood at once!
A Greek Catholic prelate burns incense over the coffin of Pope John Paul II as other Eastern Rite bishops offer prayers toward the end of the funeral Mass at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
In the stillness within St. Peter's, beyond the reach of television cameras and away from the cacophony on the square, scores of scarlet-robed cardinals formed an honor guard, lining both sides of the aisle leading to the entrance to the crypt. A handful of the pope's closest colleagues accompanied the coffin. The rest of the cardinals doffed their zucchetti, or skullcaps, in tribute.
"It was total silence," said Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. "After the Holy Father had passed by and everybody left and were out of sight, we turned to go back and take off our vestments, and no one said a word. Not a word."
So went the last minutes of John Paul's funeral Friday: sadness and anticipation, silence and cheers. John Paul, the pontiff who became a global phenomenon, received a hero's send-off from the healthy and the lame, the privileged and the poor before being lowered privately into a simple grave beneath the basilica.
Even after his coffin had disappeared, the crowd was unwilling to let go: The mourners remained outside and applauded for 10 minutes. The knell of the basilica's 10-ton bell was followed by chimes from steeples throughout Rome. Hundreds of thousands of other mourners watched the funeral Mass on television screens at parks, plazas and fields in and around the city. Millions more watched from around the world.
The enormous number of mourners emphasized a challenge for the next pope: how to match John Paul's appeal and visibility. He reigned over the world's Roman Catholics, now numbering 1.1 billion, for 26 years. He traveled to 129 countries outside Italy and spent about one of every 10 days of his papacy on the road. He helped inspire peaceful revolts against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe; gratitude was evidenced by the scores of red-and-white flags of Poland, his homeland, that flapped on the square. He also chastised the West with a steady barrage of pronouncements against abortion and contraception, materialism and consumerism, homosexuality and war.
This week, commentators here and abroad praised John Paul's efforts. Yet the church and its leaders face many serious problems that deepened during his years in office.
In recent months, Vatican officials have lamented that Europe has grown ever more secular, that finding recruits for the priesthood has become increasingly difficult, that the faithful in Latin America are drifting toward Protestant churches and that the voice of the church has not been heeded on matters of war and peace.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who presided over the Mass, had the delicate task of eulogizing John Paul while also pinpointing work that remained unfinished. His sermon was the first of several by top prelates due to be delivered each day until April 18, when the cardinals will convene a conclave to elect a new pope. Few words will be more closely heeded than Ratzinger's. He was the Vatican's official guardian of church doctrine and discipline, and a close collaborator of the pope. He is now a leading papal candidate. His homily was, in effect, the conclave's keynote address.
In the middle of the sermon, delivered in Italian, Ratzinger recalled the title of a recent book written by John Paul: "Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way."
"With these words," Ratzinger declared, "he roused us from a lethargic faith." The crisis of faith has been a consistent theme of Ratzinger's public statements and calls for church renewal. Ratzinger also noted that John Paul had sacrificed a comfortable life as parish priest to become auxiliary bishop of Krakow.
In Ratzinger's eyes, this is a parable of sacrifice that stands in contrast to calls by some Catholics that priests should be allowed to lead normal, married lives. Ratzinger said of John Paul: "He realized how true are the Lord's words: Those who try to make their life secure lose it."
The mourners clapped.