In a ceremony filled with the soaring voices of choirs and prayers of unity and love, Pope John Paul II was honored on Friday in an emotional funeral service witnessed by presidents, kings and millions of mourners.
The pope's unadorned cypress coffin — bearing a single cross with the letter "M" signifying the Virgin Mary — was carried from St. Peter's Basilica by 12 pallbearers, who placed it on a carpet in front of the altar. In one of the most iconic images from the ornate ceremony, a large red bible was placed on top of the coffin and its pages began to flutter in the wind.
More than 300,000 mourners jammed into St. Peter's Square to honor the pontiff, who died on Saturday after a long battle with Parkinson's disease (see "Pope John Paul II, Catholic Church Head For 27 Years, Dead At 84"). Several in attendance held Polish flags aloft in honor of the pope's birthplace, chanting "Santo!" and holding signs that read "Santo Subito," expressing their desire that the church make John Paul a saint. Many in the peaceful, overflowing crowd had spent the night in St. Peter's Square awaiting the funeral, while those who could not squeeze into the square watched on large television screens across Vatican City.
The two-and-a-half-hour funeral Mass opened with the Vatican's Sistine Choir singing the Gregorian chant "Grant Him Eternal Rest, O Lord" and featured prayers in six languages. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, gave the homily, in which he fought back tears while recalling one of the Pope's final public appearances. "That last Easter Sunday of his life, when the Holy Father, in extreme suffering, appeared once again at the window of the Apostolic Palace, and one last time gave ... a blessing," he said. "And I think we can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of his Father's house, and he sees us and he blesses us."
The homily was frequently interrupted by loud, sustained cheers.
The 77-year-old Ratzinger — a close advisor to the pope who is believed to be among the potential candidates to be the next pope — and his fellow cardinals were dressed in long red robes with white miters, while other clergy surrounded them dressed in ornate purple vestments.
Among the dignitaries at the front of the audience were President Bush and Laura Bush, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac. President Bush is the first sitting U.S. president to attend a papal funeral.
After the ceremony, the pope's body was carried under the basilica. In his will, the pontiff had requested that his body be buried in the "bare earth" and be interred in the floor of the grotto under the basilica, near the tombs of the other popes and the one believed to hold the remains of the first pope, the apostle Peter. A flat stone with only his name and the dates of his birth and death was laid on the tomb. Before the burial, the cypress coffin was placed in a zinc coffin, which was then placed inside a wooden casket.
Following the traditional nine days of mourning, the 117-member College of Cardinals will begin deliberating on April 18 to choose a new leader. Observers will then look for the telltale white puff of smoke and ringing bell that signify the group has chosen John Paul's successor.