Vatican City The body of Pope John Paul II began its journey from the Apostolic Palace to St. Peter's Basilica for public viewing Monday, four days before being entombed in the grotto where pontiffs throughout the ages have been laid to rest.
With tens of thousands of mourners outside hoping for a glimpse of John Paul, 12 pallbearers, flanked by Swiss Guards, carried the late pontiff on a crimson platform from the Sala Clementina, where it had lain in state since Sunday.
The funeral will be held Friday morning with burial at the St. Peter's Basilica grotto.
The College of Cardinals, meanwhile, convened for the first time since the pope's death ahead of a secret vote later this month to elect a new pontiff.
Archbishop Josef Clemens, secretary of the Vatican office for lay people, said the rites would be held Friday in St. Peter's Square. Archbishop Clemens, the former secretary to top Vatican Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, also said not all the cardinal electors had arrived in Rome in time to attend Monday's first session.
Italian news agencies reported that the funeral would be held at 10 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT).
The cardinals met at the Bologna Hall of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace for about 2½ hours. After taking an oath of secrecy, they were to open any final documents John Paul may have prepared for them and to set a date for this week's funeral.
The body of John Paul emerges from an inner sanctum of the Vatican on Monday afternoon for the public to bid farewell. It was displayed Sunday for prelates, ambassadors and other dignitaries. Vatican employees filed silently past the body on Monday morning to pay their last respects.
The former chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, who had hosted John Paul during his historic visit to Rome's central synagogue in 1986, viewed the body Monday. He raised his arm before the body in a gesture of tribute. The current chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, viewed the body Sunday.
Up to two million mourners are expected in Rome to pay tribute to the Polish-born prelate who reigned firmly over his flock for 26 years with unbending loyalty to its ancient precepts, resisting calls from modernizers for the church to adapt.
In St. Peter's Square, lamp posts were covered with impromptu memorials to John Paul, including flowers, handwritten messages and children's drawings pinned up with multicoloured candle wax.
The Vatican's Swiss Guards, who normally wear gaily coloured uniforms, were clad in black cloaks Monday as the official mourning period for the pope continued.
As tens of thousands of the faithful file past John Paul's bier above the traditional site of the St. Peter's tomb, the cardinals in their first preparatory meeting were dealing with the practical arrangements of disposing of the pope's mortal remains before they get ready to choose who will inherit his mantle.
John Paul set an imposing agenda for the cardinals in instructions he drafted in 1996, including the reading of any final documents he may have left for them.
In addition, the cardinals were expected to arrange the destruction of John Paul's Fisherman's Ring and the dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters – formal gestures meant to symbolize the end of his reign and to prevent forgeries.
The funeral will include pageantry reserved for the highest prince of the church and in the presence of many of the world's secular and religious leaders.
The pope died Saturday of septic shock and cardio-circulatory collapse, but had been struggling with declining health for many years. He was 84.
“Even if we fear we've lost a point of reference, I feel like everybody in this square is united with him in a hug,” said Luca Ghizzardi, a 38-year-old nurse among the throng in St. Peter's Square, with a sleeping bag and a handmade peace flag at his feet.
On Sunday, John Paul lay in state in the Vatican's frescoed Apostolic Palace, dressed in crimson vestments and a white bishop's mitre, his head resting on a stack of gold pillows. A rosary was wound around his hands and a staff was tucked under his left forearm. A Swiss Guard stood on either side as diplomats, politicians and clergy paid their respects at his feet.
Round the world, bells tolled and worshippers prayed in remembrance of the man who reigned for longer than all but two of his predecessors and was credited with helping bring down communism in Europe and spreading a message of peace during his frequent travels around the world.
As they begin a series of preparatory meetings, the cardinals quietly will be sizing up each other for the task of electing the 265th successor to St. Peter, the first pope.
The conclave, held in utmost secrecy with all cardinals sequestered until a decision is reached, must begin within 20 days after the pope's death.
John Paul was 58 when the cardinals elected him in 1978 as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He appointed all but three of the 117 cardinals entitled to attend the secret conclave electing the new pope, but there is no guarantee that his legacy of conservatism will continue into the new reign.
John Paul opposed divorce, birth control and abortion, the ordination of women and the lifting of the celibacy requirement for priests, issues that sharply divided the church.
“Today, while we weep for the departure of the pope who left us, we open our hearts to the vision of our eternal destiny,” Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's No. 2 official, said in his homily on Sunday.
“For a quarter century, he brought the Gospel of Christian hope to all the piazzas of the world, teaching all of us that our death is nothing but the passage toward the homeland in the sky,” he said.
The written text of Cardinal Sodano's homily called the late pope “John Paul the Great,” a title usually designated for popes worthy of sainthood, such as Gregory the Great and Leo the Great. Cardinal Sodano did not use the title when he delivered the homily, and there was no explanation.
Vatican texts, however, are considered official texts even if they are not pronounced.
“It's a historic event,” said Ercole Ferri, a 72-year-old Roman who proudly showed off a list of the six popes he has lived through. “It's not something sad for me. I think of all that he has done.”
“I think more about how hard it will be for a new one to follow in his footsteps,” he added,