Peter Dejong  /  AP
Visitors take shelter under umbrellas in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, on a rainy Saturday, April 9, 2005.
updated 5/24/2005 10:19:22 AM ET 2005-05-24T14:19:22

In a light April rain, hundreds of people waited two hours or more along the outer edge of St. Peter’s square in an effort to spend a few seconds at the tomb of John Paul II.  Fresh off the flight (or perhaps not so fresh) from Newark International Airport, I got in line with them; tourists, pilgrims and Romans standing shoulder to shoulder to bare witness to the only Pontiff many of us have known.  After the requisite security check (not quite as detailed as a TSA screening, but complete enough for Vatican security to spot a penknife in the backpack of an unsuspecting Frenchman in front of me) we proceeded toward the Basilica.  The line was about 15 people wide and at least 100 yards long.  We made our way along the wall of the Apostolic palace where a sea of opened umbrellas lead the way as the rain continued to fall. 

We then began to walk up the steps of the Basilica.  We did not go inside but did pass the Holy Door, opened last by John Paul II during the Jubilee in the year 2000.  Next we headed down the alley alongside the Basilica.  At this point if you look up to the right you see in front of you the Sistine Chapel, where the successor to John Paul II will be chosen, perhaps as early as this week. 

Luigi Felici  /  AP
A June 7, 1963 file photo showing the crypt and the sarcophagus containing the body of late Pope John XXIII, in the grottos beneath St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
Back in St. Peter’s, the umbrellas close, as we walk through a small door beneath the grand structure.  The walkway continues downward.  On the walls there are relics of centuries past, and as you turn a corner toward the grottos you see part of the colonnade of the original St. Peter’s built by Constantine in the fourth century.  It is a stunning site.  We pass the final resting places of several Popes: Benedict VIII who died in 1024, Paul III who died in 1549 and another Paul of more recent times, Paul VI who died August 5, 1978 and his successor John Paul I who died 54 days later.  It is interesting to note most of these Popes are buried in sarcophagi, aboveground stone coffins, with their names etched into the sides.  Still others are buried in more grandiose fashion on the main floor of the basilica.

Back down below, in one of the final grottos, with two Vatican guards standing watch, we approach the tomb of John Paul II, who chose to be buried in the earth, a simple slab with his name in Latin “Ioannes Paulus PP II” and the years of his Papacy (1978-2005).  The guards make sure no one stays too long, which in a way, takes away from the spiritual nature of the visit.  Then as you exit the grottos, there is one last surprise, under a sign that reads “Sepulcrum Sancti Petri Apostoli” and about 20 yards behind inaccessible glass doors is the grave of St. Peter.  The first Pope and the 265th, their earthly remains just a few yards from each other.  As we exit the Basilica, now more individually than as the mass we went in, the clouds have broken, the sun begins to shine, and not far away the next successor to St. Peter, waits for the call “Tu es Petros.”

Chris Ariens is a producer with MSNBC working in Rome with correspondent Chris Jansing.

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