VATICAN CITY — From the main artery leading into St. Peter’s Square looking down toward the basilica, the mostly red and white Polish flags looked like a “river of humanity.”
Watching Pope John Paul's funeral, with hundreds upon hundreds of Polish pilgrims who were still flooding into the city minutes before the ceremony started, was a real privilege.
The celebration of the pope’s life was so festive, that at times it was almost un-funeral-like.
It was just amazing because all of these people were just so exhausted – both physically and emotionally — especially after the long trip here and after waiting on line to see the pope lying in state.
But most were still in shock when the reality sunk in that their liberator was gone. Many Poles don’t see John Paul only as the leader of the church, but as the liberator of their country. When the fact that this liberator was really dead hit them, there were some very strong emotional reactions; some people even fainted.
I was watching the festivities on a huge TV screen, one of 27 around town, and one of six that was right on that boulevard leading into the square. It was great because every time the image of the coffin appeared on these big screens, there would be spontaneous applause. There would be applause and then cheeringm, right in the middle of the homily, if you can believe it.
During Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily, as he was ticking off all of the positive points about John Paul’s career from working class roots, through working in a quarry, through being leader of the Catholic Church, with every positive biographical point mentioned, there was cheering, “John Paul! John Paul!”
I felt like I got to know many of the other pilgrims after standing in line with them for hours on Wednesday night into Thursday morning waiting to pay respects to the pope.
Moving at about 200 yards an hour, you have time to talk and exchange ideas and listen. There is no question that after 13 hours, I had a very good feeling for why John Paul was so attractive as a person, a concept, as well as a reality to so many different people.
My line-mate, Bill Wakefield, 59, from Devils Lake, N.D., felt so committed and obliged to come to be a part of this funeral that he spent $6,000 on two tickets, one for himself and one for his friend Wilson, to fly here.
It took them 28 hours to fly from Devil’s Lake to Rome, via Minnesota and Amsterdam. They got to Rome and immediately jumped in a cab to head straight to the line at the Vatican. The funny thing is that as they jumped out of the cab at the end of the viewing line, he immediately lost his friend, Wilson. They got out on different sides of the cab and lost each other in the crowd.
Every single person I spoke to on that line, and I spoke to dozens, had similar reasons for coming.
It was not necessarily because they were devout Christians or Catholics, but because they believed that the pope was a moral icon. Everyone believed that he was a benchmark for the world, a benchmark for youth, and they wanted to come celebrate and acknowledge that.
On the other hand, standing in line was a true endurance test.
You hit a wall after 10 hours on the line when you are shuffling in the cold, at night, with just a little bit of food, and the free water that they were handing out every few hundred yards.
Every nationality was there — from Poles to Americans — you name it. When you are with the pilgrims and living like them, you can see what they go through physically to express their admiration.
So, there was a double-edged appreciation there. First of all from a moral or religious point of view to understand what John Paul represented to all these people. On the other hand, you could see the physical investment that people had made as pilgrims and individuals to express their love for this man. It was truly an amazing experience.
The process was exhausting. I started waiting at 7 p.m., and it was 8 a.m. the following morning when I actually got to see the body of the pope. Once I finally reached him, it was almost anti-climatic.
You were only allowed seconds in front of his body before you were gently guided off to the right or the left. But, shuffling along inside St. Peter’s Basilica and approaching the casket, with his body on the bier, I looked around and thought to myself, 'Was everyone else thinking what I was, which was about the pain in their legs or knees?'
Toward the end, that was all I could focus on, the difficulty of staying awake on my feet. I kept thinking, am I the only one having a hard time focusing on this moment?
It was a real modern-day pilgrimage to have to go through the endurance test. For many of the Poles, they were going on a pilgrimage hoping for a miracle and going to see a saint, because for them, John Paul already is a saint.
Many people on the line, especially many of the Americans I was close to on the line, were not necessarily in agreement with a lot of the pope’s policies, but that didn’t seem to matter.
There was one woman who was really not in agreement with his stance on abortion or his stance on the ordination of women as priests, but regardless, she felt she had to come because she believed so strongly in the history of the man and what he managed to do for her home country of Poland.
Inspiration to backpackers and to the elderly
The funeral was a similar mix of contradictions and contrast. How many funerals do you go to where you are surrounded by backpackers?
It was a real mix of people chanting, as well as sleeping from exhaustion, the young as well as the elderly. It was also like the U.N., there was every kind of flag imaginable.
It seemed like almost a miracle that it went off as peacefully as it did. The fact that there was no violence and that it went off without a hitch is a remarkable.
Obviously the Roman Catholic Church is an enormous institution that will carry on and the College of Cardinals will begin the process of selecting a new pope on April 18, but the funeral did feel like the end of an era and close of a chapter of church history.
What I saw today that I did not anticipate was the dignified appreciation of people for this man, especially the Polish pilgrims in the crowd.
I have never seen people applaud at a funeral before. If you can imagine applause every time the casket was shown and at the end when John Paul was taken into the basilica to be buried in the crypt, there was sustained applause for about ten minutes. Hearing hundreds of thousands of people applauding someone who has died was just a remarkably powerful feeling.
To me it expresses the love,affection, and appreciation that really transcends whatever historians will say about how important he was to the Church, how important he was to Poland, how important he was to the end of the Cold War.
All of those things we basically know, but in addition to that there was this emotional connection today that I’ve never seen before and probably never will again.
The response was not dramatic or histrionic, but tempered, dignified, and was just wonderfully poignant.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent on assignment in Vatican City.