IMAGE: Waiting to see the pope's tomb
Gregorio Borgia  /  AP
Members of the public form a line outside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Wednesday, waiting for their chance to see the tomb of Pope John Paul II.
updated 4/13/2005 7:24:07 AM ET 2005-04-13T11:24:07

Clutching rosaries, medals and flowers, thousands of people filed past the simple white marble tomb of Pope John Paul II 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, of Hagerstown, Md. “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.

'One last time'
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 traveled overnight by bus from the southern Italian town of Ginosa to be among the first in line.

IMAGE: Pope John Paul II's grave
Peter Dejong  /  AP
Pilgrims visit the grave of the late Pope John Paul II inside the grottoes of St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday.
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.

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 lies just steps from the tomb traditionally believed to be that of the apostle Peter, the first pope.

Some of the cardinals who will sequester themselves inside Vatican City next week to choose a new pope prayed by the grave Tuesday evening in their last homage before the grottoes were reopened to the public.

Two-by-two, in crimson robes and tall white bishop’s miters, they stood at the foot of the marble slab and bowed their heads.

On Wednesday, they resumed their preparations for their conclave, which begins April 18. They are meeting daily to pray for guidance, to get to know each other and to manage the mundane affairs of the church.

That includes reviewing the complex finances of the Vatican, which has operated at a deficit   for the last three years.

The cardinals’ last two meetings this week were both occupied by financial affairs, an indication of the seriousness of the problems confronting the Vatican with its salaried staff of 2,674 and soaring expenses.

The financial statement for 2003, the latest to be publicly released, reported revenues at about $250 million, $11.8 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, the Vatican said in a statement. It gave no details.

The cardinals have also spent time contemplating the task ahead: choosing a new pope. It will be the first conclave for all but three of the 115 cardinals who will cast ballots.

Quick voting?
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, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, in 1978.

The ceremonies to mourn the pope drew a stunning assemblage of religious and political leaders to Rome, as well as 3 million pilgrims, the Vatican said. But most left within a day of the burial.

The re-opening of the grottoes was expected to draw a new wave of pilgrims.

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.

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