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Pilgrims Flock to Pope John Paul II's Tomb

  • Sabina Castelfranco

Pope John Paul II's tomb was opened for public viewing Wednesday for the first time since his funeral. Thousands gathered from the early hours of the morning to make sure they'd be able to file past his grave.

When the doors of Saint Peter's Basilica opened Wednesday morning, hundreds of pilgrims already lined Bernini's colonnade in Saint Peter's Square. These pilgrims were taking no chances.

Cardinals pray in front of tomb of late Pope John Paul II in grottos of St. Peter's Basilica
After the crowds witnessed in Rome for the pope's funeral and to view his body lying in state, these pilgrims wanted to make sure they'd be able to file past Pope John Paul's tomb in the grottos beneath Saint Peter's Basilica.

The Italian authorities had warned the Vatican not to open the pope's tomb to public viewing too soon for fear there would be too many pilgrims. But five days after the funeral, visitors were being allowed in.

Although the numbers did not compare to the millions that descended on Rome to view the pope's body and attend his funeral, for those waiting in line Wednesday it was a very emotional experience.

Eric Martinez from Fort Worth, Texas, was one of them.

"It's humbling, it's beautiful," he said. "You walk down into a basement where you start seeing the tombs of other popes and then you see the pope's [John Paul's] tomb is lit up and flowers around it with the offerings on the floor and the people standing next to it."

Mr. Martinez and his wife, Laura, were recently married. She said for both of them, seeing the pope's tomb was very special.

"It was just indescribable, it was amazing, it really was and I'm not even Catholic and it brought tears to my eyes just 'cause it was so amazing,'" she said.

Pope John Paul's tomb is very simple. It was dug in the ground in the central nave of the grottos and sits in a private niche. A white slab of marble bears the name of Pope John Paul in Latin carved in gold letters. Below his name are the dates of his long 26-and-a-half-year papacy.

The pilgrims were allowed down the narrow stairs into the grottos in groups of around 10 people but no one was allowed to stop in front of the tomb in prayer.

Joanne Apuzzo had tears in her eyes as she left the basilica. She led a pilgrimage of 60 people from Chicago.

"Unfortunately, they don't give you enough time, they rush you through so you don't even get the chance to express your feelings," she said, " you have to say it real fast, whatever is on your mind and in your heart but it's awesome. He's beautiful. Gonna miss him."

As they continue to file past the tomb, many hold on tight to their rosaries and religious medals. They hope they'll be blessed by the spirit of a man they already consider a saint.