Pilgrims in Vatican City watch the white smoke come out via big screen, signaling the pending announcement of a new pope.
updated 4/20/2005 10:41:13 AM ET 2005-04-20T14:41:13

With millions descending upon St. Peter's Square to mourn the passing of Pope John Paul II and await the announcement of a new pope, MSNBC is getting a first-hand glimpse of the event. Below, readers tell the stories of their visits to Vatican City and describe the scene.

A life-changing experience
On Wednesday the 6th of April we planned to get a wake up call and get a taxi to Vatican City to start our wait in line to pay our respects and say goodbye to the Holy Father Pope John Paul ll. As Americans, we started on a rushed sprint to get to the line as quick as possible, when we realized quickly that we were the only ones running. Everyone else was just walking a calm pace, that said, "We get there when we get there". Then we caught on -- these people were not in a rush for anything they were not trying to beat one another to the front of the line -- it was about comforting one another and sharing thoughts about the great human being that the world had just lost. Everyone on line, the thousands of people that we were walking with and meeting were feeling the same loss. It was incredible to see how one human being had touch and influenced so many lives. From one end of the world to the other, it was visible, people from all walks of life.

The crowd was enormous, as you all have seen on TV, yet the it was not a the same feeling you get while waiting in line for hours at Disneyland or waiting to enter the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. It was more peaceful and calm. Everyone very kind to one another, offering cups of coffee, and even panini's and water were passed out by city volunteers (no charge). There was nothing "crazy" about this 10 hour wait (we did not know it would be this long).

By the time we had spent seven hours in line we didn't feel like it was that long. We had met so many people and had so many new stories that had been shared with us that the wait was the last that we were thinking about. At 9 1/2 hours, we were very close to entering the steps of the St. Peter's Basilica. The mood was very calm; whispers were the sounds you heard among the diversity & mixture of people. Slowing moving closer to the awaited holy site.

The closer to the Basilica doors the more soft spoken and quiet whispers became. Once we entered the doors there was absolute silence. The voice of angels singing throughout the Basilica was the only sound, besides the clicking and flash of cameras going off. There was actually one other sound, the wiping of tears and muffled cries from hurting hearts. You could see the sorrow in many faces. It was like being a loved one funeral and comfort was sought in one another's eyes. I get chills just thinking about it every time I tell my story. In fact, I feel blessed that I am able to say "my story" about this moment.

As I arrived to the front of the line and I found my self "there" in front of the Holy Father, lying in state! I was overwhelmed with a feeling of peace and serenity. It was mystical. He looked so tranquil and calm, as if the feeling the was outside for the past ten hours was the same yet more extreme inside, there next to him. Even though his soul was not where his body was laying, I was able to feel what he was all about - faith, peace, harmony, hope and love for people all over the world.

I have come home with a more faith in my catholic religion because of Giovanni Paulo ll has touched my heart even more so after his death. The mystical feeling I cannot describe in detail that came over me by being in front of him, even after death, I cannot put into words.

Giovanni Paulo ll, my eyes will never see the same since I stood before you. For that I thank you.
--Isabel Burcher, Glendale, Calif.

A very moving experience
My wife Gabrielle and I were fortunate enough to be in Rome when the Holy Father passed and it was a very moving experience. We arrived in Rome on Saturday afternoon and from the moment we heard of the Pope's passing we were drawn to St. Peter's Piazza. We attended Sunday morning mass with the hundred of thousands in St. Peter's Piazza and were touched by the overwhelming sense of unity and community among the crowd. During the mass we could not help but to think about the immense reach and impact Pope John Paul II had on people all over the world. To our left stood a boys and girls scout troop from Northern Italy, to the right a contingent from Poland and in front nuns from South America. Everyone was speaking different languages and yet all understanding each other. As the crowd held hands in prayer and offered each other the sign of Peace, you realized we're all one in faith.

The Sunday night candlelight vigil in the Piazza was another exhibit of the goodness John Paul II brought out of people. As pilgrims from around the world were arriving and setting up their sleeping bags on the cobblestones a young man worked his way through the crowd with a large pot of hot soup. He stopped at every makeshift memorial of flowers, candles and personal notes quietly passing out cups of soup to the weary travelers. Not taking, or asking, for a single Euro in return. As we read the notes and looked at all the candles and flowers, a lady from the Philippines was struggling to reach the ledge of the lamppost to leave a candle and note. In her broken English and sign language she asked my wife for help to reach the ledge, her smile and tear in her eye more than expressed her gratitude. 

Pete Newton
We were two of the lucky few that were able to pay our respects to the Pope on Monday night. Waiting in line with tens of thousands of people was an event to be remembered. People from all over the world and walks of life were waiting patiently for hours, passing each other bottles of water handed out by the volunteers and the occasional panini sandwich. As we reached the steps to the Basilica an eerie silence came over the crowd, a serene calm with only the click of camera shutters being heard. 

Walking past the Holy Father you could feel his presence in not only the events of the past couple of days but right there as you pay your last respects. We couldn't help but to reflect on what an incredible man Pope John Paul II was and that only he could bring so many diverse people from around the world together not only during his life but also in his death.
--Pete Newton, Commerce Township, Mich.

Marvelous pope, marvelous hospitality
I have just returned from an incredible experience. On Thursday morning, at about 7 a.m., after nearly a 12-hour wait in line, I said goodbye to a marvelous human being: Giovanni Paolo II, or as we know Him, Pope John Paul II.  The throngs of humanity more than doubled Rome's population, and yet, there seemed to be an air of civility wherever one ventured. The city opened its arms to the world with plenty of bottled water for the masses, abundant public lavatory (WC) facilities, blankets distributed as the early morning chill came over St. Peter’s Square, and much more.  I dare say that I have never felt so welcomed by a community, and I will be forever grateful for Rome's gracious hospitality during the past three days.  Mille Grazie Roma!!!
–- Terry Spaeth

A great honor
I am a 42-year-old American living in Italy. I have been here for two years. It has been a great honor in my life to have been able to be a part of what has happened these last few days in Rome. I live near Padua, and on Monday the first, we decided we would answer Giovanni Paulo's call to Rome. We packed food and water in the car and blankets. as we started driving to Rome it became very apparent that we were not alone. We saw cars from all over Europe, bus upon busload of people all heading to Rome. We were lucky, having family member in Rome who had room for us to stay. Many didn't have this luxury.

The next day, we entered the line of pilgrims at 7 a.m. This is where our journey truly began. It was amazing, never have I felt so much a part of humanity. When we started out we were next to some women with their small children. Slowly we moved onward together and people stared talking to the ones next to them. "Where are you from? How long did it take you to get here?" In each hand was a rosary and as we walked we prayed in so many different languages, but as one. I can't express the feeling of unity that surrounded me.

When we turned the corner and finally saw St Peter's looming in the distance, a hush came over us for a minute. There were video screens and speakers along the way, showing images of the Holy Father and the crowd. We were so tired by this time, as we had been in line for about four hours. Everyone one was breaking into backpacks offering water or snacks to their neighbor and handing cameras back and forth so we could all take home a piece of this great moment.

When we finally reached the lower steps, we had been in line for five and half hours. Let me tell you, am no spring chicken, I have Fibromyalgia and I was in real pain. but I knew I had to go on. It became difficult for me to take each step but in my heart and mind I just kept thinking of my mom, as I promised her I would make the journey for my family to pay our respects. I thought of my children and nieces and nephews and how I would be bringing it back to them and my family would share this bit of history forever. I walked on.

It was apparent to me that I was a part of something much bigger than myself, than any one human being. In that square I felt the light of hope. I felt the promise of Giovanni Paulo II. Quietly we walked into the chapel, one by one we passed by him. As the end came I finally broke down, crying in huge sobs. this was the end of an era. This pope had changed so much in our lives, but he also left us something behind. All I had to do was walk out of the church and open my eyes. His promise was loud and clear!
--Caryn Yazdani, Veneto, Italy

Worth the wait
I started queuing up on Wednesday at 1 p.m. and came out of the Basilica at 4.45 a.m. on Thursday after 15 hours and 30 minutes. It was a tremendous experience and I paid tribute to a person whom I met personally when I gave service for a month in 1990 as an altar boy.

Along with many youths we have lost our pope and is now rejoicing our lord in heaven. When I finally saw the pope in the basilica, I forgot all those hours waiting and the tiredness. This is something I will treasure all my life, especially the photo I have as an Altar boy with the pope. Indeed, a photo with a saint. Thank you Pope John Paul II.
--Michael Gafa, Marsascala, Malta

Privileged procession
The most moving part of the whole experience happened Monday. At the North American College we received a phone call at 3:30 p.m. that said any priest who would come to the Papal Palace at 4:30 with cassock and surplice could join in the procession of the body of the Holy Father from the Papal Palace through St. Peter's square to the Basilica.  We rushed to arrive at the Vatican because of so many streets being closed and police blockades controlling the crowds. When we arrived we entered through the bronze doors guarded by the Swiss Guards into the Papal Palace which a sight to behold. I estimate more than 1,000 priests and seminarians were present, more than 100 bishops and about 70 or 80 cardinals. The prayers began in the Papal Palace broadcast over P.A. system and television to the whole square and the Via del Conciliazione (street which runs down to the Vatican). The prayers themselves lead by the Cardinal Papal Chamberlain were so moving.

Then we began the procession chanting Psalms 23, 130, and 51 echoing throughout the whole Piazza, Palace and Basilica. As we processed down Bernini's staircase into the long hallway of the bronze doors, the procession stretched as far forwards and backwards as I could see. When we got out into the Piazza I could finally see the Holy Father's body on the television screens coming down the same stairs I had just processed.  I was quite overcome at this image of being privileged to lead my gather to his home.  It was as if we were all giving back to God the incredible gift that had been given to us of our Holy Father.

People lined the whole procession way, many in tears, St. Peter's bell tolled and we began the Litany of Saints. Praying especially to all the saints who were Popes for the intercession going up the main stairs into the central doors of the Basilica we were lined by the Swiss Guards and we finally passed into the Basilica itself which was empty except for those of us in the procession. We then lined both sides of the center isle first the bishops then the cardinals passed between us and then our Holy Father being carried by his personal attendants. How many times I had lined the isle of passage way at World Youth Day or in St. Peter's Square, hoping to get a glimpse of our Holy Father as he passed by, but this would be the last time I would see Pope John Paul II go by me. This time we were escorting him home.

As the Holy Father's body was placed in front of the altar where St. Peter himself is buried, we sang solemnly in Latin the beautiful hymn of commendation. Then there was a beautiful prayer service with the proclamation of the Gospel (John 17:24-26).  At the end of the prayer service the Basilica was completely silent as we priests, bishops, and seminarians were allowed to slowly pass by the body to say a final goodbye to our Holy Father.  We exited the basilica to see the hundreds of thousands who would now be allowed to pass by the body. 
--Fr. Andrew Cozzens, Rome

A moment of sadness and glory
I got home from spring break in the Amalfi Coast on Saturday around 4:30 p.m., grabbed a quick shower, and ran down to St. Peter's square as soon as I could. I walked around for an hour or so, took in the scene of so many people gathered, praying, hearing songs and prayers of different languages every few steps or so.  I had my camera, of course, and took a few pictures to remember the event, but I don't think I'll be needing the pictures to remember that night.

After an hour or so, I called my roommate Cecile and asked her to bring a rosary so I could pray while I waited for news.  She arrived shortly afterwards, and we continued to wait for news. After two hours and no update, we walked around the square to take in the scene a little more, and then saw the massive line of news cameras.  Walking by, many of them turned to film the candle in my hand, as it provided a good visual for their newscasts, and after a while we got stopped for interviews.  As more people caught on to the fact that we spoke English, we did more and more interviews, until around 9 p.m. when Cecile left for dinner.  At that point there was still no update, but the cardinals had gathered outside the basilica to lead the crowd in prayer.  I went back into the square and finished praying a rosary with the 10,000 other people in the piazza.  At the end of the rosary, I heard the cardinal leading the prayer say something about 21:37 and going to the house, and then there was a respectful applause among the crowd. I finally worked up the courage to ask the woman next to me, "Che cosa ha detto?"  "E morto," she said.  "Alle nove e trenta sette."  He died, at 9:37. 

I, along with half of the crowd, got down on my knees and prayed another decade of the rosary for him.  The candle still burned in front of me, like lingering hope.  I left the praying mass in the piazza to call my family and find out if they'd heard or not, and sure enough, they'd found out an hour before I had.  I was accosted by reporters again, this time looking for thoughts "after the death," and did a few more interviews, and then went back in the piazza to pray another rosary. 

This time, the bells of St. Peter's rang throughout the entire prayer, mourning the passing of a great man, a great leader, a great example of Christ's love in this world.  After another hour of prayer or so, I made my way through the ever increasing mass of people and left the square, six hours after I'd entered it earlier that evening.  I stopped to get some gelato on my way home, and pondered the question that had been asked of me so many times that evening with cameras shoved in my face: "Are you sad?"  For JP2?  No.  I'm more glad for him than anything.  He's spent his entire life working towards that night.  That was his moment of glory.  After 26 years of service (and then some, before he was pope) to the people of this world, he finally received his reward. 
--Kelly Bulla, Madison, Wisc./Rome

My father and I were very fortunate to have been present in St. Peter's square when the Holy Father passed away.  We had just finished praying with close to 100,000 people, and were gazing at the light coming from his private apartment when we heard the announcement of his death.  There were sudden bursts of tears all around me and I could not contain my own for long.  The crowd began singing and praying and most of those gathered fell to their knees on the cobblestone.  No one moved, no one spoke, and a group of Italian youth began singing, "Alleluia, He is Risen," a traditional Italian Easter hymn. The atmosphere in the square was surreal and peaceful.

On Wednesday I arrived at St. Peter's at 6 a.m. and there were already hundreds of thousands of people waiting in a "line" that wound around side streets of the Vatican.  We guessed that we would wait around 6 hours before entering, it turned out to be nearly 13!  I kept asking myself, "Is this worth it?" It wasn't until we finally entered the basilica, tired and dehydrated, that I was able to answer, "Yes, it was definitely worth it!" 

John Paul II is the only Pope I have ever known in my 25 years on this earth, and he has been my inspiration for as long as I can remember.  My life, my faith, and my hope for the future have all been shaped by this man.  It was worth waiting for 13 hours to say goodbye. 

I paused briefly in front of his body, which was once so full of vigor and joy, and I remembered my personal meeting with him this past December, when he grasped my hand and looked at me with eyes full of love.  I experienced the love of Christ when I looked into those eyes. 

As the Vatican guard waved me through so others could pay their respects, I said a quick prayer asking for John Paul's protection and guidance, and made my way out of the Basilica.  It was a day I will never forget. Thank you, Holy Father, for all you have done for your children.
--Eleanor Pilon, St. Paul, Minn./Rome

Twelve hours for a brief glimpse
I was privileged to be among the hundreds of thousands of people who stood in line for 12 hours on Tuesday evening to view the Pope's body in St. Peter's Basilica.  It was an arduous pilgrimage with well-mannered and determined people of all ages, languages and states of life. It all ended with just a few seconds to view John Paul's mortal remains, which showed the signs of his suffering and human fragility. It was shocking to see that his body in death bore little relation to the greatness of his stature in life.  I had the opportunity to see him and speak a few words to him on two occasions in my life.  He was then, as always, simply a warm and great human being.  May he rest in peace with God and may the world continue to enjoy the spiritual energy for Christ that he was always committed to communicating.
--Fr. Robert Rossi, O.S.C., Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Happy to see him in peace
I attend Loyola University's Rome Center. It was tragic to hear that the Pope passed away. All my fellow students wanted to go to St. Peter's to pay our respects. We decided to go late Monday night because we assumed that not many people had arrived yet to form large lines. We knew that St. Peter's closed at 2 a.m. and wouldn't open until 5 a.m., so we decided that we would leave around 3 a.m.. The line wasn't that long.

It was a very somber time amongst all those in line. We were not too far down from the square. We could hear the speakers announcing prayers in all different languages. It was somewhat tiring but I didn't want to give up. I was determined to pay my respects to such a great man! The line moved quickly but after walking from school to St. Peter's I was overly tired. I stayed focused, especially when I saw people from all over, all different ages there to show their support. I just kept walking and one of my friends started to sing a religious song and people were praying and clapping and we all felt like a big family.

Though I am not religious, it was truly touching to see how one man has brought so many people from all over the world to Rome. As you get closer to the steps and you see the screens and the little memorials people put together, it just warms your heart that he was truly loved by all people.

It was quick down the aisle and that moment you see the Pope's body, you just start to cry because you realize he is finally in peace. I kept walking but I felt the tears pouring down because I was happy to see him in peace. He looked very calming and I know that he knows that a lot of people in this world love him and will never forget him.

As I walked towards the exit, I just turned around and not pray but just asked for peace for my family and friends, especially those in Iraq. I guess I asked for some peace and protection for my uncle who was in Iraq but was seriously injured and has been in and out of surgeries. So before I headed back to take the bus back to school  -- I had to turn in an important paper for class -- I just took some time to ask for some help for those I cared for and said my last good byes to Pope John Paul II, whom to me will never be forgotten!
--Virginia Chaves, Modena, Pa./Rome

An atmosphere of memoriam
I was in St. Peter's Square on Sunday evening about 20 hours after the Pope's passing. At this point, the square was not packed like it had been earlier. When I arrived, there were great masses gathered in groups around the square, though there was plenty of room to walk around.

Large groups of people were marching into the square from different entrances, hoisting flags in the air of their native countries and singing songs. Groups gathered in the square and prayed together, sang together, or either gathered around individuals who sang solo. Perhaps the most memorable group was a mass of teens and young twenty-somethings, arms locked together, encircling, and dancing around a group who was singing and playing guitars.

Around the fountains, lampposts, and even on barricades in the square, candles, flowers, notes, and photos had been placed.

While there were some tear-filled eyes in the masses, as a general consensus, the atmosphere was not one of sadness, but of just memoriam. Everyone there it seemed had just come to talk about the Pope, his passing, and to feel the connection with others that the Pope seemed to have a legacy of creating. I think the fact that everyone knew it was coming had taken the immediate sadness away and people simply wanted to be a part of something great, to absorb greatness from the Pope, even in his death.

I returned again on Monday afternoon, but at this point, the Vatican was packed with people. Overnight or either through the morning, the police had set up barricades and closed off the square to immediate pedestrian access to organize the masses for viewing his body. People were pressed in chest to back with one another. Though it wasn't a hot day, it was sweltering in the close proximity with all of the other people. I turned back and did not enter the Basilica to view his body.
--Derick Strode, Villa Hills, Ky.

I was at the Vatican the day before the Pope passed away. We were there on a business trip and I wanted to stand in St. Peter's Square looking up at the window where the Pope addressed his people on many occasions. It was very, very emotional to know that the Pope was ill, and when I heard the bells toll in St. Peter's Square I felt in my heart that something bad was going to happen. The security guards at the Square were all somber faced. Sad. The whole mood in Rome that day was calm, but as the reports came out that the Pope had a high fever I knew that I was going to experience this sad event, and I was very fortunate to be there (at the Vatican) to pay my respects. I cried, I was emotional and thankful to have the opportunity to "say goodbye" in Rome. I felt that this was one man who everyone looked up to in some way. I just recently lost my father who was my best friend and I can honestly say that I felt as moved by the Pope's passing as I did my own father. I hope he rests in peace and he finally gets to be with the father he so well respected and worked for. I am sad that he passed on, and I hope that his message gets passed on by whoever takes his place. We all need someone like Pope John Paul II to guide us through as we struggle with the state of the world today.

-- Kim Tanner, Toronto, Ont. Canada


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