Pilgrims Pray at Blessed John Paul's New Tomb

Faithful file past casket in Chapel of St. Sebastian in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz prays at the new tomb of late Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 3.
Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz prays at the new tomb of late Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 3. (photo: CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Before a slab of gleaming white marble inscribed “Beatus Johannes Paulus PP. II,” thousands of pilgrims made the sign of the cross, snapped a picture and said a quick prayer.

Some left photographs or letters in a basket in front of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s new tomb in the Chapel of St. Sebastian in St. Peter’s Basilica. A few also left flowers and a monetary contribution to support the process of declaring him a saint.

After hundreds of thousands of people filed past Blessed John Paul’s mortal remains May 1, the day of his beatification, and May 2 after a Mass of thanksgiving, a small ceremony was held to place the remains — still in their original triple casket — under the altar and seal it with the white marble slab.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the ceremony began May 2 at 7:15pm, after St. Peter’s Basilica had been closed to the public. Before the marble slab was put in place, nine cardinals, several bishops and the priests who staff the basilica chanted “Blessed John Paul” in Latin. They recited the approved Mass prayer for his Oct. 22 feast day and the casket was censed.

Among those present were Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, the late Pope’s longtime personal secretary, and the Polish nuns who cared for the papal household. They returned to St. Peter’s May 3 for an early morning Mass in the chapel.

Vatican officials had said more than 250,000 people visited Blessed John Paul’s mortal remains on the day of his beatification.

Pope Benedict XVI and the cardinals who concelebrated the beatification Mass were the first to kneel and pray at the foot of the closed wooden casket; many kissed and caressed the recently cleaned and polished wood.

Once the dignitaries left, a thick velvet rope was put around the casket and the public was allowed to stream up the right side and down the left side of St. Peter’s Basilica. The pilgrim path was marked by waist-high wooden barricades set back several feet from the casket.

Ushers kept the crowds moving swiftly, leaving many with little time to linger. Small groups of people were allowed to kneel briefly in prayer far from the barricades.

Moving the crowds so quickly meant many pilgrims who were in the square after the beatification had to wait only 30 minutes to get in to see the casket.

Sister Milena, a member of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth, said she waited in line for only half an hour right after the beatification Mass.

The 24-year-old nun from Wroclaw, Poland, said it felt “very special, very nice” to be able to pray in front of his casket. She said she prayed for a woman who just joined her religious order.

A man from Scotland said he got inside the basilica around 1am and called the moment “grace-filled.”

Sister Christina, a member of the Servants of Mary from southern Cameroon, said she felt “real joy” and could sense the late Pope’s presence.

Being by the casket, it felt “like he had never left us,” she said.

The Tuscani family from Turin, Italy, said “it was a moving experience” to have seen his casket.

However, the ushers moved them past so quickly they didn’t have time to pray, “just time to make the sign of the cross, which was more than enough,” Paola Tuscani said.

Father Enda Naughton, 78, who works at the Knock Shrine, Ireland’s national Marian shrine, said he had celebrated Mass with the late Pope twice in his private chapel when he was alive.

He said seeing his casket “was lovely” and that his whole visit had been touched by the blessed.

He said when planning the trip last month, all of the hotels were full. He prayed to Pope John Paul and asked him that “if he wanted me to come,” the Polish Pope would have to “do something” — and then, 10 minutes later, he got an email from one hotel saying there had been a cancellation.

He said he was lucky to get into the basilica because “there was a queue miles long, snaking around. It would have taken hours.”

But he was accompanying a woman with a disability, and they were given permission to go to the front of the line to see the casket, he said.

The casket was set on a raised platform in front of the main altar on the basilica’s main level. It was surrounded by yellow and white roses and flanked by four Swiss Guards.

Placed on top of the casket was, the Vatican said, “one of the most precious Gospels in the Vatican Library’s holdings,” the illuminated Lorsch Gospels from the medieval era.