April 08, 2005 07:50 AM

As millions of people – from presidents and prime ministers to prelates and pilgrims – filled Rome on Friday for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, millions more watched on televisions around the world, witnessing what is being called the largest religious gathering of modern times.

By any measure, it was an outpouring of love and enthusiasm.

Amid ringing bells, harmonic singing choruses, waving flags and rivers of tears, applause rang out as John Paul’s simple wooden coffin adorned with a cross and an “M” for Mary was removed from St. Peter’s Basilica and placed on a carpet before the altar in the Square. The book of the Gospel, placed on the coffin, had its pages lifted by the wind.

The service began with the Vatican’s Sistine Choir delivering the Gregorian chant “Grant him eternal rest, O Lord.” Dean of the College of Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, a close confidant of John Paul and a possible successor, presided at the Mass for the “late beloved pope” who, as Cardinal Ratzinger chronicled in his celebratory homily, rose from modest circumstances as a factory worker in Nazi-occupied Poland to become, in a life of obedience, leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics.

Often interrupted by applause and frequently choking up with emotion, the German-born Ratzinger noted “the sufferings of his final months” and recalled one of John Paul’s final public appearances, when at Easter he blessed the faithful from his third-floor studio window in the Vatican.

“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,” said Ratzinger as he gestured to the window above the square. “Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality – our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude.”

At the beginning of the stirring 2-1/2-hour Mass, Ratzinger prayed for God to “grant your servant and our Pope, John Paul II, who in the love of Christ led your church, to share with the flock entrusted to him the reward promised to the faithful ministers of the Gospel.”

Following the Mass, John Paul’s body was carried deep under the basilica, where it joined the remains of popes from throughout the ages near the traditional tomb of the apostle Peter, the first Pope. As John Paul’s coffin made the final journey before the crowd, the throng burst into sustained applause.

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