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The patience of pilgrims

Presence has given the world unforgettable images of devotion

Diether Endlicher / AP
Mourners wrap themselves in blankets to shelter from the cold on the road leading to St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, early Wednesday, April 6, 2005 as thousands head to St. Peter's Basilica to say a personal farewell to Pope John Paul II.
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Vatican City - They came as though they were guided like the Magi toward a bright and shining star. They came with one image burning in their eyes: their Holy Father lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica. So, they came and they waited, and waited through the heat, the cold, the light, and the dark. The fortunate ones waited four to six hours on the first day of public viewing. Others waited more than 12 hours to spend just a few moments, even seconds, to say farewell to a man they felt they had known all their lives. It has been difficult to find people here with dry eyes or cold hearts.

And, so they are here. Their presence has given the world unforgettable images of devotion as they gathered in St. Peter's Square in the days since Pope John Paul II passed, as many believe, from this life to his next. Even those who aren't convinced that his ultimate resting place is a heavenly dwelling are still here. One man from Eritrea who identified himself only as Bereke, stood in line for six hours simply because “The Pope was my ideal man. I think that all the people of the world are weeping,” he said.

Then, there was Carol Negrete, a middle-aged American from Apple Valley, California, who spoke of this pope with a near-constant flow of tears down her face: “I feel as though I've lost a grandfather. He is Peter, our rock, the rock of our generation. The Catholic Church will never be the same.” After four hours of waiting, she was only one third of the way through the jagged queue. Her fatigue and struggles with the heat only seemed to strengthen her resolve to finish what she came here to do. “I'm willing to wait all day if need be. I'll wait as long as it takes. It is worth it to me,” she said.

Further down that same line, there were pilgrims like a young mother from Manila, Philippines, who proudly announced that her 10-year-old son was named after Pope John Paul II because her son was born the year of the Pontiff's visit to her hometown. Nicknamed Gio, her son fidgeted and dangled his gangly limbs from the police barricades but seemed to understand the importance of paying homage to his namesake. “I think he's a holy man like my mother. I hope he will find a happy place in heaven.”

Dusan Vranic / AP
A man watches a nun pray, as faithful and pilgrims line up along the way leading up to St. Peter's Square, in Rome, Tuesday, April 5, 2005 to say a personal farewell to the Pope John Paul II.

It's not just the Catholic faithful who are claiming allegiance to the pope. Michael Wright, an administrator at Duquesne University in Rome, is a Mormon who felt compelled to join the lines. His wait? 14 hours from start to finish. “He's a wonderful leader, he's a wonderful Christian leader as well. He taught us so much about loving and accepting all faiths and all peoples and really standing up for what we believe in and that's something that every Christian faith believes in and every good human being believes in.”  

Amy Schier, an American graduate student studying in Rome, stood in that same line for a few moments that she says she'll never regret. “When I stood before John Paul II and I saw this frail body which was so small and looked so weak, you could just see the suffering on his face,” she said. “He's human but he meant so much more than that to everyone… the tears began to just stream and I didn't even know where they were coming from.”

Alice Rhee is an NBC News Producer on assignment in Vatican City with Chris Jansing and Chris Ariens.

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