Vatican City Clutching rosaries, medals and flowers, thousands of people filed past the simple white marble tomb of Pope John Paul on Wednesday, as the Vatican re-opened the grottoes beneath St. Peter's Basilica to the public.
Some of the mourners said they had come not only to pray for John Paul, but also to pray to him. Many Roman Catholics believe John Paul, who died April 2 at age 84, was a saint.
“I'm hoping maybe for a little miracle,” said Myrna Palmer, 67, from the United States. “I'm praying to him that my husband gets his eyesight back.”
Her husband, Gorman Palmer, lost the sight in one eye after chemotherapy treatment.
Pilgrims lined up as early as 4 a.m., three hours before the grottoes were re-opened, in the crisp morning air.
“We are Catholics, and we had to see the Pope one last time,” said Angelo de Tommaso, a 30-year-old accountant who travelled overnight by bus from southern Italy to be among the first in line.
Pilgrims knelt before the grave to pray, and many handed religious articles to an usher, who touched them to the grave before handing them back. Ushers kept the crowd moving quickly, even hurrying along some people kneeled in prayer.
On Tuesday evening, cardinals prayed by the Pope's grave in what was their last homage before the grottoes were reopened. Two-by-two, in crimson robes and tall white bishop's miters, cardinals stood at the foot of John Paul's grave and bowed their heads.
On Wednesday the cardinals resume their preparations to elect a new pope.
They are meeting daily until the election conclave begins April 18 to pray together for guidance, to get to know each other and to manage the mundane affairs of the church.
That includes reviewing the Vatican's complex finances, at a time when the Holy See has operated at a deficit the last three consecutive years.
Financial affairs occupied the cardinals in their two latest pre-conclave meetings this week, an indication of the seriousness of the problems confronting the Vatican with its huge salaried staff of 2,674 people. The financial statement for 2003, the latest to be publicly released, reported revenues of $250 million (U.S.), $11-million short of costs.
Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani, the Vatican's economic chief, briefed the church leaders on the consolidated financial statements for 2004 and on some key points for 2005, a statement said. It gave no details.
Time also has been spent at the meetings in contemplation over the task ahead — the heaviest that the cardinals must bear — of choosing a new pope. It will be the first conclave for all but three of the 115 cardinals who will cast ballots.
If recent history is any guide, the voting may go quickly. Of the eight 20th century conclaves, no election went longer than five days, and two of them were completed on the second day. It took just eight ballots over three days to choose the relatively unknown archbishop of Krakow, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, in 1978.
The public viewing of John Paul's simple tomb is likely to draw pilgrims back to St. Peter's, which had all but emptied after Friday's funeral. The Vatican said three million people flocked to Rome to mourn the Pope's death, but most left within a day after the burial.
The tomb sits alone in an arched alcove to the right of the main altar of the central nave, a leafy potted lily behind it and a small red candle burning at its front. A marble relief of the Madonna and Child hangs on the wall above.
A rectangular white slab of marble with gray streaks marks the grave. On one line it bears his name carved with gold in Latin script: “IOANNES PAVLVS PPII.” And on another line are the dates of his 26-year pontificate using the Roman numerals for the month: “16 X, 1978-2 IV, 2005.”
Underneath is the interlocking X and P — the monogram for Christ.
The grave satisfies John Paul's wishes, written in the margin of his last will, that he be buried “in the bare earth, not a tomb.”
His plot is one of only a few dug in the ground in the central nave of the grottoes, the vast series of low-ceilinged chapels and alcoves under the basilica where popes over the centuries have been buried.
Most of the popes are ensconced in aboveground marble sarcophagi, some of them like that of Benedict XV and Pius XI elaborately carved in the images of the man inside.