By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
The line seemed endless, and so did the outpouring of affection for Pope John Paul II.
All day and all night they came to St. Peter’s Basilica to say goodbye to the late pope, whose body lay on a damask-covered bier in front of the main altar.
No one remembered seeing this big a crowd at the Vatican, and it just kept growing, hour by hour and day by day.
“He was like a father to us. This is like saying farewell to a relative,” said 26-year-old Laura Errante. She stood for several hours in a slow-moving wall of people that stretched for more than half a mile down the main avenue in front of the basilica.
“What I liked about John Paul was that he could be spontaneous, and he knew how to communicate. This crowd is the proof that he knew how to touch the hearts of the young,” she said.
On the second day of the public viewing, the crowd was full of young people, many of whom had attended the World Youth Day celebrations initiated by Pope John Paul early in his pontificate.
As they prepared to pay their last respects, they sang World Youth Day songs and helped create an almost cheerful air outside the basilica. Once inside, the mood turned more somber.
Francesco Molinari, 18, called the pope “a myth,” one of the highest terms of praise among Italian youths.
“I grew up with this pope. He connected with young people because he was able to transmit hope to them,” he said.
Molinari and 51 other Boy Scouts took a seven-hour bus trip from southern Italy, then stood in line for several more hours before entering the basilica. He recalled that at a big meeting of Scouts at the Vatican last October the pope, despite his frailty, had come down unexpectedly to see them.
“He made a big effort to greet us, and now we’re returning the favor. It’s the least we can do,” he said.
Another group of young people held up a sign that read: “You looked for us and we came to you,” an adaptation of a phrase the pope was said to have uttered on his deathbed about young people.
One of the homemade banners held above the sea of people read, “A white angel has gone up to heaven.”
Despite the huge crowds, the public viewing continued without major problems. Traffic in Rome had to be rerouted, the subway lines were packed even tighter than usual, and the portable toilets filled quickly.
On average, people were spending between three and four hours in line. During the chilly night of April 4, a few people who felt ill were treated in first-aid tents. Parents with children in strollers were allowed to stand in a safety corridor.
Cardinals arriving in Rome went to the head of the line and were allowed to kneel at length before the pope. Among those who paid their respects April 5 were Cardinals Francis E. George of Chicago and Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.
Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa joined the crowd for a few minutes early April 5, blessing babies, shaking hands and thanking people for waiting so long.
“The pope did so much for the world. It is an extraordinary day with all these people giving back to the pope the love he gave them,” the cardinal said.
The basilica was being kept open day and night, with a break for cleaning between 2 and 5 a.m. But on the first night, the doors were closed at 3 a.m. and opened 20 minutes early to accommodate the crowd.
Giant TV screens set up alongside the line showed retrospective films about the late pope, as well as pro-life videos, charity requests and even appeals for organ donation.
As the faithful moved inside the basilica and toward the pope’s body, they heard prayers and songs in various languages, sung in turn by visiting choirs. Masses were celebrated on the hour in the chapel directly behind the main altar.
The crowds were kept moving as they flowed past the dead pope. Some crossed themselves, and those who dropped to their knees were quickly helped up and moved on. Despite rules against cameras, many took photos of the pontiff.
After people saw the pope, they said the wait was worth it.
Vittoria Chironi, 58, took a six-hour train ride from northern Italy, then waited four hours before passing by the pope’s body.
“I would have waited even if it had been another eight hours,” Chironi said. “I had hoped to come and see him when he was still alive, but I failed in that. I had to come and see him now.”
Federica Uggias, 17, said he had come to say “not goodbye, just ‘ciao.’”
“I hope that whoever follows him will unite so many different kinds of people as much as he did,” he said. “He was the only pope to mobilize all the world.”
Contributing to this story was Eleni E. Dimmler at the Vatican.