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Polish Mourners

With Tears, Gratitude, Faithful Bid Goodbye

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page A15

ROME, April 8 -- The scene was hardly funereal: Hawkers sold T-shirts, musicians strummed guitars and tourists snapped photographs as about 15,000 people milled around a grassy field on the outskirts of Rome. It was here, some 20 miles from the marble and stone of the Vatican, that a group of Polish pilgrims came to say their last goodbye to Pope John Paul II, watching the late pontiff's funeral on a giant television screen.

"I am at a loss for words," said Mariola Ostafin, a 28-year-old mother from the southern Polish town of Sulkowice. "I will have to tell people what happened, but it will be very difficult to explain what it means to have seen the Holy Father for the last time."

A young woman in Krakow, Poland, where John Paul spent much of his life, sheds a tear as she waches on a large-screen television as his coffin is carried across St. Peter's Square. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

_____Week of Mourning_____
Basilica Photo Gallery:
Thousands of people at the Vatican, along with millions worldwide pay their final respects.
Video: Pope's Funeral Mass
Interactive: Services Explained
Guest List: Foreign Dignitaries
Video: D.C. Students Reflect
_____Life of the Pope_____
Narrated Gallery: Photos from the life of John Paul II, narrated by The Post's Alan Cooperman.
Obituary: Church Loses Its Light
Text: Last Will and Testament

_____Religion News_____
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Their journey had begun four days earlier when they departed Krakow in a three-bus convoy, determined to pay personal tribute to Poland's national hero. This was the last stop; once the funeral was over, they boarded the bus and began the 1,000-mile trip home.

The windswept field was one of several satellite gathering spots around Rome that attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world. Watching the proceedings on concert-sized projection television screens substituted for trying to squeeze into the crammed and overflowing St. Peter's Square.

After spending endless hours in buses and in interminable lines at the Vatican for a chance to view the pope's body earlier in the week, the pilgrims from Krakow got up early again Friday, at 3:30 a.m., to make sure they'd have a good seat in front of the screens.

They arrived about three hours earlier than necessary. They didn't complain, just unrolled blankets, bought cups of cappuccino from enterprising vendors and tried to stay awake for the last event on their itinerary.

"When I go home, things will be different. There will be a gap, a hole, and it will be hard to fill," said Ewa Kucharska, a physician from Krakow who first met John Paul in the 1970s when he was an archbishop attending a Catholic youth retreat.

"This pilgrimage was a fulfillment," she added. "In a way, I had been developing my life together with him. But I am very, very happy. I am grateful for the opportunity to have known the Holy Father, to have met him and to have shared in suffering."

There were many Italians in the crowd in the Tor Vergata district outside Rome, as well as significant contingents from France, Spain and Croatia and a smattering of Scandinavians.

But it was a gathering mostly of Poles, as evidenced by scores of white-and-red Polish national flags that flapped in the breeze. Many of the travelers had just arrived in Rome after making overnight road trips from places like Warsaw and Krakow. The latecomers spilled off the buses to brush their teeth and wash their faces before grabbing a spot in the grass.

Italian authorities had prepared for a much larger crowd of mourners here, setting up a sea of blue tents for pilgrims with nowhere to sleep and recruiting hundreds of volunteers to distribute water and food. A message scrolled across the bottom of the television screen in imperfect English: "Make enough living space between you and people around you, so that you will avoid to hurt yourself."

But there was plenty of room, giving the funeral the feel of a cross between a concert and a picnic.

Greg Jastrzab, a 21-year-old college student from Krakow, looked bleary-eyed after spending 13 hours in line Wednesday for a chance to see the pope's body lying in state in St. Peter's. Even after coming all this way, he said, he didn't mind having to watch a broadcast instead of attending in person.

"From the beginning, I knew it wouldn't be possible at all" to get back into the Vatican for the ceremony, he said. "People have been sleeping on blankets and holding places for days."

As they watched the proceedings, the Poles struggled to understand what was being said, because the broadcast was in Italian. But the liturgy and symbols were comfortably familiar. "I think the pope would have liked a funeral like this," Zastrzab said. "It is very traditional."

The Rev. Jan Urbanski, who lives with Zastrzab and other students in a parish house in Krakow, pointed with pride as the television cameras showed a vista of dozens of Polish flags waving over the crowd in St. Peter's Square. "The square is not big enough to just hold all the Poles who came to Rome this week," he said.

The priest said the papal crypt would likely attract large numbers of Polish pilgrims to the Vatican for decades to come.

"Today closes a chapter in the church's history. That is life. That is how it has to be," he said. "But love for the pope will not die. It will go on and on."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company