VATICAN CITY — The meek and the mighty of the world gathered together in St. Peter’s Square on April 8, to bid a final farewell to the much beloved shepherd, Pope John Paul II.
Lying in a simple cypress wood casket — decorated only with a cross and the letter “M” symbolizing the pope’s devotion to the Virgin Mary — the Holy Father’s body was carried by 12 laymen and set on a carpet in front of the altar, as the assembly applauded, a traditional Italian expression of homage.
The Book of Gospels that had been carried in procession before the casket was placed open atop the casket by Archbishop Piero Marini, the pontiff’s chief liturgist. A gust of wind caught the book, dramatically turning the pages before finally blowing it closed.
Earlier in the day, 15 Vatican officials and members of the papal household gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica to witness his body being placed in the casket. Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, the camerlengo or chamberlain of the Church, introduced the rite of the closing of the casket.
The “rogito,” a small scroll which contains a brief summary of Pope John Paul II’s life and major accomplishments written in Latin, was then read by Archbishop Piero Marini, master of papal liturgical ceremonies. Archbishop Marini, together with Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwicz, the pope’s personal secretary for more than 30 years then placed a veil of white silk over the face of Pope John Paul II and the cardinal camerlengo sprinkled the body with holy water.
Before closing the casket, a small bag of medallions coined during his pontificate and a lead tube containing the original copy of the Rogito were placed alongside Pope John Paul II.
Reading Psalm 41, which begins, “Like the doe yearns for running streams, so my soul yearns for you O God,” the casket was closed.
“Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals and principal celebrant of the funeral Mass told the mourners of the world in his homily. “Our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.”
Cardinal Ratzinger praised “the life of our late beloved Pope John Paul II,” stressing that “the key to understanding the message which come to us” from his life can be found in Jesus’ words “Follow me.”
“The Holy Father was a priest to the last,” he said, “for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family.”
An estimated 300,000 people crammed St. Peter’s Square for the papal funeral Mass, while countless others watched on 27 giant screens placed throughout the city of Rome. Concelebrating the Mass were 164 cardinals, their chasubles blowing in the wind. On one side of the assembly were 700 bishops and hundreds of priests and religious. With them sat leaders of other faith communities, including Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim and Protestant clergy.
Opposite the clergy sat kings, queens, presidents, ambassadors and representatives of over 140 nations, including President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. President Bush is the first U.S. president to attend a papal funeral Mass. A delegation from the United Nations, led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan sat in the front row.
It was the largest papal funeral Mass and burial the Vatican has ever seen.
“The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family,” Cardinal Ratzinger said.
“Our pope — and we all know this — never wanted to make his own life secure,” the cardinal continued, “to keep it for himself; he wanted to give of himself unreservedly, to the very last moment, for Christ and thus also for us.”
Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of the pontiff’s sufferings in recent years, saying he “increasingly entered into the communion of Christ’s sufferings.”
He recalled how the Holy Father “in that last Easter Sunday of his life...came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace” but was unable to speak the words of his traditional Easter blessing.
“We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us,” he continued.
“Yes, bless us, Holy Father,” Cardinal Ratzinger declared as the crowd erupted into loud applause. Flags, many of them from the pope’s native Poland, were waved approvingly.
“We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son,” Cardinal Ratzinger concluded.
Along with the flags, several banners dotted the crowd bearing the words “Santo Subito” (“Sainthood Immediately”) in bold lettering. The assembly’s applause lasted for more than five minutes,.
Following Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily, the prayers of the faithful were recited in French, Swahili, Tagalog, Polish, German and Portuguese. They included prayers for the eternal repose of the pope’s soul, for the fidelity and renewal of the Catholic Church, for peace and justice in the world, for the souls of all previous popes and all deceased priests, for all the faithful departed and for those gathered at the funeral.
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, 300 priests fanned out throughout St. Peter’s Square to distribute communion to as many as possible.
Following communion, the funeral continued with a series of special prayers and rites.
As part of the final commendation and farewell common to every funeral, Cardinal Ratzinger first sprinkled holy water, then incensed the casket of Pope John Paul II. After which he recited the Church’s farewell prayer.
The farewell prayer was followed by the prayers offered on behalf of the Church in Rome, the pope’s diocese. The litany of the saints was then sung and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of Rome recited a special prayer.
The Eastern Catholic patriarchs and metropolitans then approached the casket, their brightly colored vestments blowing in the wind. Adding their own farewell prayer, in unison they sang in Greek, concluding with the words, “Eternal your memory, our dear brother. Worthy of praise. Unforgettable.”
The funeral ended with the congregation singing, “May the angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival may the martyrs welcome you and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.”
The 12 pallbearers once again lifted the casket and carried it toward main doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. Before entering the basilica, they turned, inclining the casket of Pope John Paul II to face the crowd one last time.
Then, at 12:40, as the bell above St. Peter’s basilica tolled solemnly and the assembly applauded, Pope John Paul II passed through the doors of the basilica for the last time.