The final rites for Pope John Paul II are expected to draw record crowds and an unprecedented number of foreign delegations for a papal funeral. The funeral will blend very old traditions with modern touches.
St. Peter's Square has been ringed by media trucks with their ubiquitous satellite dishes, underscoring the global interest in the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Coverage will be on a scale never dreamed of in 1978, the year in which there was not one, but two papal funerals.
Longtime Vatican watcher James-Charles Noonan says John Paul wanted a simple funeral, but no one - especially not the late pope - could envision the massive crowds that descended on Rome to mark his death and celebrate his life.
"I don't think he even - and the Vatican didn't realize - what was going to come, so there was no ability to plan this," said James-Charles Noonan. "I think the Holy Father wanted for himself a very simple funeral as the bishop of Rome. And of course there's no such thing as a funeral that's simple when we're talking about the bishop of Rome. But I don't think he expected these kinds of crowds."
Mr. Noonan wrote The Church Visible, a book on the rituals, ceremonies, and protocol of the Catholic Church, with inside help. His godfather, the late Cardinal Jacques Martin, was prefect of the papal household under Paul VI, who was pope from 1963 to 1978. Mr. Noonan met privately with John Paul II on numerous occasions and had access to members of the papal staff.
Mr. Noonan says the pope's funeral blends old and new elements.
"Essentially it is a funeral liturgy that any priest would have, any bishop would have," he said. "But then you have to add the elements of tremendous protocol, ceremonial Renaissance elegance, and you come up with a recipe that is the papal funeral."
But distinct touches personal to an individual pope may be incorporated within the service, Mr. Noonan says.
"I think it will be a very Polish funeral, which I think will be rather lovely and touching," said James-Charles Noonan. "I think he would love that. I think there's going to be a lot of traditional folk songs being sung, a lot of the costumes from Poland. And I think that really would have touched his heart because wherever he traveled, if the local Polish community came out, he immediately returned to that man from Poland and forgot for a minute that he was the pope but was once again a Pole with them."
Seating at the funeral is divided along secular and religious lines. On one side of the papal bier will be the heads of state and governments, including prime ministers, presidents, and monarchs. Mr. Noonan says there is a small oddity of protocol that dates back many years.
"There's going to be three or four women in white, and everybody else will be in black," he explained. "And those women are the Catholic queens and the grand duchess of Luxembourg, who have the special privilege of wearing white in the pontiff's presence or at his funeral. Everyone else will be in black, including other queens from other countries who aren't Roman Catholic. It's called the 'privilege du blanc', the 'white privilege,' to show that in the old days when the Vatican was a very old-fashioned monarchy, when a Catholic sovereign came his wife was entitled to wear white just as a little extra, a little extra gift to them protocolwise."
On the other side of the bier will be the cardinals and bishops of the church, arrayed in their bright clerical robes. The funeral mass will be celebrated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who will also deliver the homily, or sermon.
After the Mass in the square, the pope's body will be taken to an underground crypt, where many of his predecessors are also laid to rest. Mr. Noonan says he knew speculation that Pope John Paul II would be returned to his native Poland for burial was wrong.
"When I heard there was speculation in the press that he would be going back, I knew that it wasn't so because one of the titles of the pope is 'sovereign of Vatican City.' And that means the king of Vatican City," he said. "And that would be same as if Queen Elizabeth from England decided to be buried in France. It's not really something that would ever be entertained."
But Mr. Noonan says he would not be surprised if there was an announcement in the future that the Pope's heart was removed and returned to his homeland. He notes it has been a common practice among European heads of state - especially in the past - for their bodies to be buried one place and their heart in another.