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The Vatican Prepares for Pope John Paul II’s Funeral

April 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, remembering John Paul II and his influence on the Church. We begin our coverage with a report on today’s ceremonies at the Vatican. It comes from Bill Neely of Independent Television News.

BILL NEELY: After the long illness and one of the longest papacies, the long good-bye and a final journey from his rooms to his resting place. Through the corridors of a Vatican he dominated as few before him have, he was borne up, one of the great leaders of the last half-century and then the pope, who traveled as none before him have, emerged into the open air and the brilliant sunlight for the last time.

St. Peter’s Square, where he preached every week for a quarter of a century, filled with the faithful straining for a glimpse. Here he was shot at the start of his papacy, but he lived to forgive the gunman and dazzle the world.

There are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people stretching back as far as the eye can see, many in tears, here to witness the final journey of John Paul on St. Peter’s Square; the man with the extraordinary common touch making one last short appearance before his people.

At the top of the steps, they turned the body that has borne so much pain, and the most visible pope there’s ever been was shown to the Roman crowd. Then from the square, where just days ago he’d struggled and failed to speak, he was carried inside the quiet basilica, where he’ll lie in state for three full days before his funeral, and where the world he reached out to will come to him for one last look.

Deep below where the pope lay, the crypt of St. Peter’s, where he’ll be buried on Friday alongside more than 100 of his predecessors. He used to come here often to think. Amid a frenetic life, here he found peace, and he will again. These are the men who arranged his funeral and who’ll choose his successor, the cardinals who met today for the first time since his death. They are John Paul’s men. He appointed virtually all of them. And one of them, perhaps this Nigerian cardinal, will be chosen by the rest later this month to be the next pope.

The preparations for the funeral are already under way. Barriers to contain the two million pilgrims expected here; medical teams already assembling; police leave canceled, a security nightmare looming, with 200 heads of state and leaders on the way; the television gantries multiplying to bring the funeral and the new pope into homes across the world; in the crowd, thoughts already turning to who comes next.

MAN ON STREET: There’s a danger that we may go back to the way it was before, I think. John Paul has opened doors now that has brought the whole thing. He’s a man of the people, and from that point of view we hope that that continues.

BILL NEELY: There is no doubt that in life he divided Catholics more than any pope in memory. But tonight, in death, he has united them. And here he lies, the humble boy from Krakow, the unforgettable pope.

GWEN IFILL: Now, more about the events of this day, and of those to come. Earlier this evening, I spoke with John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election.”

John Allen, welcome back. As we watch all of this unfold, how much of what we’re seeing today and over the next few days is about mourning the past as we see in traditional funerals and how much of it may be behind the scenes is about planning for the future?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think the truth is that both things are going on at once. The public rates such as the liturgy of the word as was celebrated today as the pope’s body was laid in state for public viewing and the nine days of mourning, the so-called Novem Vialis that will extend beyond the funeral, all of those are intended to commemorate the life and the legacy of John Paul II, the deceased pope, and obviously to send him to his final reward, which Catholics believe obviously lies in the next life.

But parallel to that, as the cardinals arrive in Rome — and roughly half of them we believe are here as of today and more will be arriving tomorrow — as they make their way through Rome, they are also beginning to meet privately in ones and twos, tens and twenties, to begin the conversations about what are the issues facing the Catholic Church, what kind of profile of a leader will be required to meet those challenges and to lead the Church forward, and ultimately who do these cardinals intend to vote for?

Bear in mind that virtually all of these cardinals, 114 of the 117 who are eligible to vote for John Paul’s successor, because they are under 80 years of age, have never participated in a conclave before. And they know they are likely only to get one chance at this. And obviously it’s a responsibility they take extremely seriously.

GWEN IFILL: Who are the critical players in this kind of transition, obviously the cardinals you talk about, but are there also other names that we should be listening for, people who have a big hand in deciding what comes next?

JOHN ALLEN: Yes. Most of the logistical work of the rights and rituals that are unfolding over these days is, of course, not being done by the cardinals. It’s being done by other senior Vatican personnel.

Archbishop Piero Marini, for example, who is the pope’s chief liturgist, that is the chief organizer of the rituals that a pope is called upon to celebrate, is also playing the lead role in organizing the public events in these days. He actually, tomorrow at noon Rome time, will be giving a briefing to the press about what to expect in coming days.

Also Bishop Renato Bacardo is playing a very important logistical role. And I think probably the most important role would be played by John Paul II’s private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, because obviously all the officials of the Church who are putting these days together want them to unfold according to the pope’s wishes and in the spirit of his life. And there’s no one better positioned to indicate what would be in accord with the pope’s wishes than Archbishop Dziwisz.

GWEN IFILL: Obviously, John, this has been under way, the planning for this has been under way for some years, if not decades, I suppose. So what — one of the things I find interesting — you talked about the press briefing tomorrow — we’ve watched these amazing pictures coming out of the funeral procession today. It seems as if in the 26 years since a pope was last chosen there has been huge concessions made to current-day technology and accessibility almost.

JOHN ALLEN: I think that’s right. And actually I would argue that that began well before the actual death of John Paul II. In the 72 hours leading up to the pope’s death, there really was a remarkable degree of transparency from the Vatican in terms of what was actually transpiring in the final stages of John Paul’s illness.

The old saying around here used to be that a pope is never sick until he’s dead. And then the tendency was to always sort of try to very jealously guard his privacy and to minimize, downplay any reports of illness. But in those critical days, there was a twice-daily briefing from Vatican spokespersons with a remarkable level of medical detail.

And of course then beginning with the death of the pope for the first time, for the very first time, televised images have been brought to us of the pope lying in repose in his own private chapel with his most intimate collaborators, the Polish clergy and the Polish nuns who took care of the papal household, paying their obviously very emotional respects to the Holy Father.

And then today we saw televised images of the movement of the pope’s body from inside the apostolic palace again in the Sala Clementina, on the second floor where John Paul in life held so many of his private and semi-public audiences. And for the last time, in effect, was greeting a public there. Those televised images from inside and then outside in the square, and then on into the basilica, a remarkable degree of openness. And I think in many ways that’s in keeping with the spirit of John Paul’s pontificate.

This was a pope who took office from the beginning of the modern media revolution, the advent of twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week news cycles. And he always had an instinctive gift for how to move in that new world. He once called modern communications the modern Areopagus, a reference there being to the place in ancient Athens where ideas would be exchanged. And so I would say in death as in life this was very much a media-savvy pontificate.

GWEN IFILL: John Allen, thank you very much.

JOHN ALLEN: You’re welcome.