Visitors turned away night before pope’s burial

VATICAN CITY-Church and city officials, overwhelmed by an estimated 1 million people waiting for a brief, final look at Pope John Paul II, stopped allowing new pilgrims to join the line late Wednesday night, fearful that viewing wouldn’t end in time to prepare for the scheduled 10 a.m. start of Friday’s funeral.

The wait to reach St. Peter’s Basilica was 15 to 20 hours when police began turning newcomers away, and the line stretched from the basilica, where the pope’s body lay in state, down the wide Via della Conciliazione, across the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge and down the far bank of the Tiber River.

Officials estimated that as many as 1.5 million people had already been through the basilica and said they expected the crowd on the streets surrounding the Vatican to grow to as many as 4 million for the largest papal funeral in history.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, joined by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, used a special VIP entrance to enter St. Peter’s shortly after they arrived in Rome from Washington. They knelt in a pew in front of the body, bowing their heads in prayer.

With only about 100,000 people able to cram into St. Peter’s Square, officials set up 25 massive screens around the city – including in such places as the Coliseum and the ancient chariot-racing course – so that people who can’t get near the service can watch.

Dignitaries, including President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and Prince Charles of Great Britain, were seated in what officials called “a secure bubble” away from the main crowd in St. Peter’s.

Only the Swiss Guard, the official security force of Vatican City, is allowed to carry weapons in the Vatican, but security was tightened in anticipation of today’s funeral.

By Wednesday, only military and security aircraft were allowed over the city. Rome was also closed to all private automobile traffic during the funeral.

Employees were told to stay home, schools were closed, and doctors’ appointments were re-scheduled.

Earlier Wednesday, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced that the conclave to pick John Paul II’s successor will begin Aril 18.

The pope’s 15-page “spiritual will” was also released Thursday. The pope wrote the document throughout his reign, with the first entry in 1979 – the year after he ascended to the head of the church.

The pontiff’s funeral began today at 4 a.m. Eastern time in the United States.

The funeral Mass was led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Ratzinger wore red and white vestments and recited from the Bible John’s account of Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter: “Lord, you know all things, you know I do.” Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”

After the funeral Mass, the pope’s body was placed in a cypress casket.

The body was then be sprinkled with holy water, the pope’s face covered by a white cloth, and he was carried down beneath the papal altar to be entombed in a spot formerly occupied by Pope John XXIII.

The casket was sealed with wax, then placed in a zinc casket, which was then sealed and set in a different wood casket before being placed in the tomb.

Today also marks the beginning of nine days of memorial masses before the conclave begins.

Distributed by Knight-Ridder news service