As world leaders and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims continue to arrive in Rome for Pope John Paul II's funeral on Friday, the Vatican disclosed that the late pontiff thought about resigning his post five years ago when he was 80 and already ailing. The pope's testament, released on Thursday, reveals that he also considered being buried in his native Poland.
John Paul's testament, written in Polish over several years of his long stewardship of the Roman Catholic Church, indicates that he gave thought to resigning when the church entered its third millennium in the year 2000 because of his advanced age and his failing health. But he later reconsidered.
The document also discloses that he thought about asking to be buried in Poland but that, in the end, he decided to leave his funeral arrangements to the college of cardinals, which will meet on April 18 to choose his successor.
Monsignor William Kerr, who heads the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in the United States, says the late pontiff decided against a burial in Poland because he belonged not only to his fellow Poles but to the entire church.
"Everyone knows who's watched him at all how much he loves his native land of Poland and how much they love him," said Monsignor Kerr. "At the same time, he understands perhaps better than anybody that he is the pope… and that he belongs to the church universal, not just one segment or region of the church but to the church universal. And so, I think it was clear in his mind that his final resting place would be here in Vatican City, in Saint Peter's Basilica, with the other popes who have died before him."
Vatican officials say more than two million people have flocked past the late pope's body since it was displayed for viewing by the public earlier this week. Another two million people have arrived in Rome over the past day, and many are still hoping to get a final glimpse of John Paul's body, which is lying in state in Saint Peter's, before the basilica is closed Thursday night so that it can be prepared for the funeral.
Italian authorities charged with crowd control had closed off the line of mourners late Wednesday night to give people already in line a chance to get into the basilica. But, on Thursday, with the arrival of so many pilgrims, especially from Poland, they relented and allowed groups of latecomers to join.
Tadeusz, from Krakow, was one of the lucky ones. He says he traveled 23 hours in a bus with several friends to see John Paul II one last time.
"It is just pure pleasure, because, you know, just the thought that we are all together, there's a feeling of togetherness among us, you know, not only the Poles but all the people of the Catholic faith," he said.
Rome's deputy mayor, Luca Ottavianni, says the big task city officials face Thursday night is to clear Saint Peter's Square so that they can ready it on Friday for the arrival of the more than 100 world leaders who will attend the funeral.
"We have to get the whole place empty the night before and then control everybody and put them back in the square," said Luca Ottavianni. "So that's going to be a very, very hard task. But we're ready to do that."
The authorities have set up giant television screens all over Rome where visitors can watch the pope's funeral. They have banned cars from the streets of downtown Rome and encouraged Romans to stay at home.