Presidents, prime ministers and kings joined pilgrims and prelates in St. Peter's Square on Friday to bid an emotional farewell to Pope John Paul II at a funeral service that drew millions to Rome for the largest gathering of the powerful and the humble in modern times.
Applause rang out in the wind-whipped square as John Paul's plain cypress coffin, adorned with a cross and an "M" for the Virgin Mary, was brought out from St. Peter's Basilica and placed on a carpet in front of the altar. The book of the Gospel was placed on the coffin and the wind lifted the pages.
After the Mass ended, bells tolled and 12 pallbearers with white gloves, white ties and tails presented the coffin to the crowd one last time, and then carried it on their shoulders back inside the basilica for burial again to sustained applause from the hundreds of thousands in the square, including dignitaries from more than 80 countries.
Chants of "Santo! Santo!" urging John Paul to be elevated to sainthood immediately echoed in the square.
The first non-Italian pope in 455 years was buried at 2:20 p.m. (8:20 a.m. EDT) in the grotto under the basilica, attended by prelates and members of the papal household, the Vatican said.
Earlier, dignitaries from more than 80 countries who had gathered in Rome for the mass all stood as the white-gloved pallbearers carried the coffin on their shoulders through the central portal of the basilica.
The Vatican's Sistine Choir sang the Gregorian chant Grant him eternal rest, O Lord, as the service got underway. Cardinals wearing white mitres, the tall headwear of bishops, walked onto the square, their red vestments blowing in the breeze.
The Globe and Mail's Alan Freeman reported from the scene that the atmosphere mixed the solemnity of a funeral mass and the enthusiasm of a mass popular event, with hundreds of thousands of the faithful crowded into St. Peter's Square.
As helicopters hovered overhead and Italian police ringed the square outside the historic basilica, the sounds of the mass could be heard echoing among the assembled mourners.
Many of the participants were carrying backpacks and sleeping bags after sleeping overnight on the pavement to secure the best possible spot for the mass.
Despite the huge numbers of mourners, the crowd was generally quiet and well behaved. Civil and defence and first aid workers were ready with huge stocks of bottled water and emergency equipment for crowd members who fell ill.
Many of the pilgrims were young people with enough stamina to withstand the long waits. Many also carried flags of the pope's native Poland after having made the 20-hour trip to the site in bus caravans, Mr. Freeman reported.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals and a close confidant of John Paul, presided at the mass, referring to the pontiff as our "late beloved Pope" in a homily that traced John Paul's life from his days as a factory worker in Nazi-occupied Poland to the last days of his life as the head of the world's one billion Catholics.
Interrupted by applause at least 10 times, the usually unflappable German-born Ratzinger choked up as he recalled one of John Paul's last public appearances when he blessed the faithful from his studio window on Easter.
"We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us," he said to applause, even among the prelates, as he pointed up to the third-floor window above the square.
"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," Cardinal Ratzinger said in heavily accented Italian.
He said John Paul was a "priest to the last" and had offered his life for God and his flock "especially amid the sufferings of his final months."
At the beginning of the mass, Cardinal Ratzinger prayed for God to "grant your servant and our Pope, John Paul II, who in the love of Christ led your church, to share with the flock entrusted to him the reward promised to the faithful ministers of the Gospel."
After the 2.5-hour mass, the body was to be carried deep under the basilica to join the remains of popes from throughout the ages near the traditional tomb of the apostle Peter, the first pope.
John Paul requested in his last will and testament to be buried "in the bare earth," and his body will be laid to rest under the floor of the grotto below the basilica. His tomb will be covered with a flat stone bearing his name and the dates of his birth and death. Pilgrims will eventually be able to visit.
At least 300,000 people filled St. Peter's Square and spilled out onto the wide Via della Conciliazione leading toward the Tiber River, but millions of others watched on giant video screens set up across Rome.
Earlier, groggy pilgrims who had camped out on the cobblestones awoke in their sleeping bags to hordes of the faithful stepping over them as they tried to secure a good spot to view the mass.
The square and the boulevard leading to it were a sea of red-and-white flags waved by pilgrims from John Paul's beloved Poland, many in traditional dress shouting "Polska! Polska!" Pilgrims from other countries raised their national flags in the crowd, and prayers were read out during the mass in a host of languages.
"We just wanted to say goodbye to our father for the last time," said Joanna Zmijewsla, 24, who travelled for 30 hours with her brother from a town near Kielce, Poland, arriving at St. Peter's at 1 a.m. local time Friday.
American Archbishop James Harvey, head of papal protocol, greeted dignitaries and religious leaders as they emerged onto the steps of the basilica. Many shook Harvey's hand and offered condolences before mingling and taking their appointed seats.
Turbans, fezzes, yarmulkes and black lace mantillas joined the skull caps of Catholic prelates in an extraordinary mix of religious and government leaders from around the world.
Bells tolled as the leaders, including Prime Minister Paul Martin, took their places on red-cushioned wooden seats. Ten minutes before the scheduled start of the funeral, the U.S. delegation arrived, headed by President George W. Bush and including his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and former president Bill Clinton.
Rome itself was at a standstill. Just after midnight Thursday, a ban took effect on vehicle traffic in the city centre. Airspace was closed, and anti-aircraft batteries outside the city were on alert. Naval ships patrolled both the Mediterranean coast and the Tiber River near Vatican City, the tiny sovereign city-state encompassed by the Italian capital.
Italian authorities took extraordinary precautions to protect the royalty and heads of state or government attending the funeral.
Elite Carabinieri paramilitary police armed with automatic rifles were stationed at virtually every major intersection in Rome to minimize the threat of a terrorist attack on the more than 80 heads of state and monarchs attending the mass.
Combat jets from Italy's air force, joined by an AWACS surveillance plane deployed by NATO, guarded against any strike from above on the leaders and top Roman Catholic prelates assembled on St. Peter's Square. Italian security agencies posted snipers on rooftops, and a navy warship armed with torpedoes cruised the coastline near Rome. Anti-aircraft rocket launchers were placed strategically around the capital.
Jewish and Muslim leaders were among the dignitaries from more than 80 countries, including the presidents of Syria and Iran, and the king of Jordan.
The Pope's death on Saturday at age 84 elicited a remarkable outpouring of affection around the world and brought an estimated four million people to Rome, doubling its population.