Rome - This story was originally published in Newsday on April 9, 2005
They came to mourn his death and they came to celebrate his life. They cried and they applauded him during the simple but majestic ceremony.
And then, away from the gaze of the millions who came to honor him, the cardinals of his church buried Pope John Paul II in the ancient crypt of St. Peter's alongside the remains of popes who preceded him.
From the capitals of the world, heads of state sat peacefully together. From the villages of Poland, the cities of Italy and countries all over the world, they packed St. Peter's Square and the streets around the Vatican and gazed at the plain cypress wood coffin that held the body of a man from a simple town in Poland.
Grief and gratitude
On top, the pages of an open book of the Gospels flipped over in the wind. Inside lay John Paul's body, reposing and awaiting burial while millions of Catholics in Rome and beyond prayed for his soul and gave thanks for his life.
Long after the 12 white-gloved pallbearers, known as Papal Gentlemen, had carried the coffin into the basilica for a private burial in the crypt, the millions outside continued to clap and wave flags and chant for John Paul's immediate beatification. "Santo Subito" read some signs - "Saint Immediately" in Italian.
The bell that tolled when the pope died last Saturday tolled once again.
He was buried at 2:20 p.m. - 8:30 a.m. in New York - the Vatican said, attended by members of his household and prelates.
"Lord, grant him eternal rest, and may perpetual light shine upon him," said the Vatican chamberlain, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, ending the private burial ceremony.
In a few days, the Vatican will announce when members of the public will be able to visit John Paul's tomb, said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
The funeral itself was unlike any seen before, bringing the world's power elite together with the masses for two and a half hours of respectful contemplation.
Thousands had slept peacefully on the chilly streets the previous night, hoping to secure a place in the square. But for the many who couldn't catch a glimpse of the coffin and the ceremony in person, huge screens in the surrounding streets and around the city enabled people to take part in the vast communal ceremony.
In the minutes leading up to the start of the Mass, a remarkable procession of more than 200 world leaders appeared in front of the basilica where they were greeted by American Archbishop James Harvey, head of papal protocol. Kings of Christian countries such as Spain sat with Muslim leaders such as President Mohammed Khatami of Iran. President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, came to pay their final respects. French President Jacques Chirac conversed with Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations. The president of Israel, Moshe Katzav, sat a few rows in front of Bashar Assad, president of Syria. The two countries remain officially at war.
In spite of his frequent meetings with world leaders, John Paul II fashioned himself as the pope of the people, holding open-air Masses in front of as many as 4 million people through the years. And so one last time Friday, some of those millions turned out to say goodbye to their pontiff.
Peace in St. Peter's Square
The crowd in the square was a hushed sea of flags that billowed in the wind, hundreds of them the red and white of the Polish flag. For such a vast crowd, it was extraordinarily calm. "They said it might be dangerous because of all the high dignitaries here but we thought it was the right thing to do," said Lorenza Tarmati, 25, who had come from the outskirts of Rome and was sitting on a yoga mat with friends on the Via della Conciliazione, the boulevard that leads to St. Peter's Square. "The pope believed in young people and had such strong empathy for us that we wanted to come and give it back to him."
Fifty Girl Scouts from Radom, Poland, in navy skirts, navy berets and red scarves, stood in the square, mouthing the words of the prayers during the Mass.
"When the pope said Friday that he was grateful to the young people who came and prayed at his window, I took it very personally," said Gosia Kalbarczyk, 21, of Radom. "I thought that he was waiting for me in Rome and I felt that I had to come." She had not slept since her arrival around 3 p.m. Thursday. Although sleepy and hungry, she was still glad to be here. "I think we are very lucky people to have seen him alive."
The funeral was beamed live around the world on television channels from South America to the Persian Gulf. Hundreds of thousands gathered to watch on three huge screens in a field in the Polish city of Krakow, where John Paul was serving as cardinal when he was elected pope.
People in Rome and in Poland cried and applauded as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals and the main celebrant of the funeral Mass, gave the homily. A leading candidate for the papacy himself, Ratzinger reminded the celebrants of how a young boy from Poland grew up to be pope.
He recalled John Paul's pained appearance on Easter Sunday, when he went to the window of the Apostolic Palace for his final blessing urbi et orbi (to the city and the world). "We can be sure that our beloved pope stands today at the window of the father's house, that he sees us and blesses us."
Ratzinger has a reputation of being a hard-nosed ideologue, but his homily was laden with tenderness for the pope he served: "Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality - our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude."
When he was finished, the crowd erupted in long applause - traditional at funerals in Italy.
The mourners were spread out all over Rome, happy just to be together and in the same city. Warnings on the big TV screens in various languages, including English and Polish, cautioned: "Please don't push in order not to be pushed."
Although there was some anxiety and even some jostling for better viewing spots before the Mass, the entire city was becalmed once the service began. People did not push.
Every time Ratzinger mentioned Poland in his homily, Polish mourners in the Piazza del Popolo, on the other side of the Tiber River from the Vatican, applauded. Many of them wore kerchiefs around their necks emblazoned with the Polish word for Solidarity, the once-outlawed labor union that the pope helped legitimize.
Some people climbed onto statues of lions at the base of a giant obelisk in the piazza to get a better view.
During the Mass, there was the customary request that celebrants turn to their neighbors, shake hands and wish each other peace. In the piazza and all over the city, people turned gently and wished each other "pace" - Italian for peace.
The world leaders, among them men who have presided over wars and killing and torture, joined in.
Perhaps in acknowledgment of John Paul's particular concern for young people, there were prominent roles for young Catholics in the ceremony. The readings were given by people who appeared to be in their 20s, one Spanish, one British. Six short prayers were offered in French, Swahili, Tagalog, Polish, German and Portuguese by young men and women. And shortly before Ratzinger began preparing Communion, he received gifts from young representatives from the churches of several developing nations.
The Swiss guards who are charged with protecting pontiffs stood watch over his coffin nearby. Given the high security risk posed by having many of the world's most powerful people sitting next to each other, helicopters from the Italian security forces hovered in the cloudy skies above Rome.
With the sacrament blessed, about 300 priests fanned out throughout the huge square to try to offer the sacrament to the tens of thousands of worshipers. Ratzinger gave the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the actual body of Christ, to a line of people including some of the Polish nuns who looked after the pope during his years in the Vatican.
At 12:37 p.m., the Papal Gentlemen picked up the coffin and began to carry it back inside the basilica.
The crowd applauded perhaps louder than ever before, knowing this would be the last time they would see the coffin. There had been some gentle crying earlier in the Mass, but now the eyes of men, women and children filled with tears all over the city and around the world.
The bell began to toll as the Gentlemen showed the coffin to the people for the last time, tipping it slightly so the lid was visible, engraved with a simple dark wooden cross and "M" for the Virgin Mary. They held it for a minute and then turned around, stepping slowly in time into the huge basilica, where the TV cameras and reporters could not go.
It was time for John Paul to be buried.
That part of the ceremony could not be viewed but a senior Vatican official who was present told the Associated Press that John Paul was laid to rest between the tombs of two women: Queen Christina of Sweden and Queen Carolotta of Cyprus.
The coffin had been closed with red bands and papal and Vatican seals before being placed inside a zinc coffin, which in turn was placed inside a solid walnut coffin, which bore his name, his cross and his papal coat of arms.
As he requested in his will, the pope was buried below the surface of the crypt's floor with 148 other popes, including the first, the apostle Peter.
When the service was over, the millions who had come to Rome began to flood out on buses, trains, planes and in cars.
Marco Tomas, who flew in from Warsaw, Poland, Friday, said he felt gratified to have witnessed a moment in history that he will remember for the rest of his life. Now that John Paul is buried, he said, "You have nothing else to do but to follow. But this is the hard task, trying to be a good man. Easily said, much harder to do."
As the afternoon wore on and Rome began to turn to normal, albeit with mammoth amounts of garbage still to pick up, the gray clouds that had loomed over the city in the morning broke.
It rained on Rome, a city in mourning.