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VATICAN LETTER Jul-22-2005 (780 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Long lines, short prayers await visitors to Pope John Paul II's tomb

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In addition to the normal logjams created by security screening and checks to ensure modest dress, the lines at St. Peter's Basilica are longer than the summer norm because of visitors to Pope John Paul II's tomb.

More than three months after the pope's April 2 death, the Vatican is still running a separate line just for visitors to his tomb.

The line takes visitors around the outside of St. Peter's Basilica, directly into the underground grotto, past the tomb and outside again. Those who want to visit the church must then get into a short, quick line.

A few visitors pause first at the tombs of Popes Paul VI and John Paul I in the grotto, and almost all of them stop before the icon above the tomb of St. Peter, but obviously the recently deceased pope's final resting place is the visitors' goal.

Only a lucky, persistent few have a chance to pray before the tomb.

With the long lines and, especially, pilgrimage groups wanting to see the tomb, the basilica's ushers rather brusquely keep the lines moving.

Visitors who look like they are about to take a photograph of the tomb are asked to refrain. Those who sneak in a shot are snapped at.

A red rope runs down the center of the path in front of Pope John Paul's tomb. The side closest to the tomb is used for the majority of visitors, and that is where the ushers keep traffic flowing.

The other side provides safe and easy access to people using crutches or wheelchairs and a small space for those who want to stop and pray. Those who are not sitting in a wheelchair or kneeling on the marble floor are presumed to have finished their prayers and are asked to move along.

As temperatures in St. Peter's Square soared July 20 and tempers were keeping pace, one man -- visiting the grotto with his wife and three small children -- managed to use gestures to tell the usher he wanted a rosary specially blessed.

Taking the rosewood rosary, still in its plastic packaging, the usher touched it to the pope's tombstone and handed it back to the grateful man.

He, his wife and three children made the sign of the cross and moved along.

An Italian-speaking tourist apparently was not sure what she was doing in the grotto.

"Who is this?" she asked the usher, pointing to the tomb where the pope's name is inscribed in Latin.

"Pope John Paul the Second," the usher responded.

"You mean the one who just died?" she asked.

The only sign that almost four months have passed is the disappearance of a big basket that had been at the foot of the tomb for more than two months.

The basket, which was emptied twice a day, was used to gather notes and monetary offerings.

Archbishop Angelo Comastri, head of the office that cares for St. Peter's Basilica, said the notes would be turned over to the priest preparing Pope John Paul's sainthood cause.

"They were all requests for graces, especially for families," he said. "One mother included a photograph of her baby who was born with a deformed mouth, and she asked the pope to intercede with God so that the surgery would go well, without complications.

"Several are from young couples entrusting their future families to God and asking for the pope's blessing," he said.

"All of the notes I have read are about family," Archbishop Comastri said. "Pope John Paul is the pope of the family."

Msgr. Slawomir Oder, the postulator of Pope John Paul's cause, said that while the notes do not appear to include information about alleged miracles attributed to Pope John Paul nor testimony about his life, they are important for the cause.

"They are further evidence of the 'fame of holiness' required for beatification and canonization," Msgr. Oder said.

The notes can be used to demonstrate how many people from different parts of the world believe that Pope John Paul is in heaven and can intercede on their behalf, he said.

While the basket had been removed, people were still leaving notes at the tomb in mid-July.

One morning, a cellophane-wrapped single lily leaned against the wall. The stem stood on a pristine white envelope, obviously containing a note.

Near the opposite wall, someone had placed a postcard with an icon of a crucifix on it.

The message was lying face down, and the ushers were not going to quit moving visitors through the line long enough to share it.


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