Vatican City Police reopened the line to St. Peter's Basilica on Thursday, giving the faithful a final chance to pay respects to Pope John Paul II. Thousands of Poles held aloft red-and-white Polish flags, adding a shimmering stripe of colour to the procession.
Authorities had closed the line Wednesday night as officials rushed to make last-minute preparations for the pope's pomp-filled funeral on Friday, which was drawing leaders from more than 100 countries. They also closed the basilica for a few hours overnight for cleaning.
By the time the basilica and line reopened, many who had waited hours for a chance to spend a few seconds briefly viewing the pope's crimson-robed body had given up and left.
Officials said Thursday morning's line was moving more quickly, with the wait dramatically shortened to just a few hours. They announced that the basilica doors would be shut at 10 p.m., making it likely that the line would be closed later in the day to spare pilgrims too far back from waiting in vain. On Wednesday, some in the throng had waited 24 hours to get inside.
The Vatican also released John Paul II's testament in which he suggested that he considered the possibility of resigning in 2000 at a time when he was already ailing and when the Roman Catholic Church was embarking on a new millennium.
The document, which the Vatican released Thursday, also said he left no material property and asked that all his personal notes be burned. It mentioned only two living people: his personal secretary and the chief rabbi of Rome who welcomed him to Rome's synagogue in 1986.
The Vatican also released the series of masses that will be celebrated during the nine days of mourning that begin on Friday with the pope's funeral. Among the prelates celebrating the Masses is Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston amid the sex abuse scandal and now heads the St. Mary Major basilica – one of the most important churches in Rome.
Officials on Wednesday sent text messages on Italian cellular phone networks that warned subscribers: “St. Peters full.” Later that night, they erected barricades to prevent people from joining the line.
At one point during the night, pilgrims who had been cut off began chanting, “Open, Open.” As the line reopened, police said pilgrims had to wait only about three hours before entering the basilica.
The line was filled with Polish flags on Thursday as some of the two million Poles expected to travel from John Paul's native country arrived. The pope is credited with helping to end communism in Poland and unite Europe.
U.S. President George W. Bush was joined by his father, former president George H.W. Bush and former president Bill Clinton in giving a private tribute Wednesday night, kneeling at the side of John Paul's bier and folding their hands in silent prayer.
They were among the monarchs, presidents and heads of government from more than 100 countries who have begun arriving for a funeral Friday that will be marked by solemn pageantry. John Paul died on Saturday at age 84.
Italian authorities readied anti-aircraft rocket launchers and took other security measures to protect the dignitaries converging on Rome for the funeral. Naval boats were patrolling the Tiber River that marks the boundary of Vatican City, and missile-armed ships were guarding the coastline.
As they planned the transition from John Paul's eventful 26-year reign, the College of Cardinals set April 18 as the start of its conclave to elect a successor, a papal election with new rules and new technologies.
With 3,500 accredited journalists watching, the 116 cardinals expected to chose the next pope will be mindful of the warning in a document by John Paul to abide by their vow of secrecy – or face “grave penalties according to the judgment of the future pope.”
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the cardinals would celebrate a morning Mass on April 18, then be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel in the early afternoon for their first secret ballot.
In past conclaves, the so-called “princes of the church” were locked in the Apostolic Palace, crammed into tiny makeshift cubicles without running water and limited toilet facilities.
John Paul, in a 1996 change, said the cardinals would be housed in a hotel within the Vatican walls that he had built. Each cardinal now has a private room and bath.
Also unlike previous conclaves, the electors would be free to roam the Vatican, although they are forbidden from communicating with anyone outside. The Sistine Chapel and other areas will be swept for any electronic listening devices.
According to church law, prelates are expected to hold at least one ballot on the first day of a conclave. If no one gets the required two-thirds majority after about 12 days, cardinals may change procedure and elect the pope by simple majority.
Indonesian Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, the archbishop of Jakarta, said Thursday he hoped the College of Cardinals would keep John Paul's legacy in mind when they enter the conclave.
“We hope that the man they appointed will be more or less like him,” he told reporters as he entered the Vatican for Thursday's pre-conclave meetings.
John Paul's spiritual document did not name the mystery cardinal he created in 2003, Mr. Navarro-Valls said. John Paul created the in pectore (in the breast, so secret) cardinal in his last consistory. The formula is used when the pope wants to name a cardinal from a country where the church is oppressed.
The number of cardinal electors under age 80 and thus eligible to vote is 117. On Wednesday, the Philippines Embassy to the Holy See said Cardinal Jaime Sin, 76, was too ill to attend. On Thursday, however, Cardinal Sin's office in Manila said the cardinal was hoping to attend despite his poor health.