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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April, 2005, 21:34 GMT 22:34 UK
Venerable resting place for the Pope

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Some elegant white lilies and a red candle stand guard on either side of the freshly-closed tomb of Pope John Paul II in the crypt under St Peter's Basilica.

Picture of visitors to the Pope's tomb released by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano
A steady stream of people visited the crypt on the first day of opening

No other flowers are allowed.

The Pope's triple coffin of cypress wood, zinc and walnut was lowered into the crypt last Friday immediately after his funeral.

It was covered with a simple white marble slab bearing only his name Ioannes Paulus in Latin, not Polish, and the dates of his birth and death.

In his will, the Pope said he wanted to be buried in the bare earth - not in one of the splendid marble papal tombs and monuments of which Roman churches boast so many fine examples.

The labyrinth of underground chambers below St Peter's shows traces of the first basilica built in the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth Century AD above the reputed tomb of the first pope.

Pope John Paul used to come fairly frequently to pray here in the chapel in which dozens of his predecessors lie buried.

He took the habit of praying here on his return to Rome after each of his overseas journeys.

And he chose as his final resting place the alcove where his very popular predecessor Pope John XXIII, the pope of the second Vatican Council, used to be interred.

Pope John's remains were transferred upstairs to the central nave of St Peter's when he was beatified, that is to say put on the official path to full sainthood, in September 2000.

Pilgrims' graffiti

The alcove is situated only a few steps from the extensive archaeological excavations carried out in the mid-20th Century to try to establish once and for all the truth about the exact burial site of the first pope.

A band of Polish musicians was allowed to play hymns for several minutes and Polish pilgrims were allowed to loiter for a little longer than others in the line
The final picture that emerged then is confused by the various strata uncovered during that and subsequent digs, including a whole paved street lined with mainly pagan tombs from the ancient Roman cemetery on the site dating back to the time of the Emperor Nero.

But it was established that from the very earliest days of Christianity in Rome, pilgrims came to this place to venerate both St Peter and St Paul and left graffiti to remind us of their presence.

Vatican security men kept the crowds flowing briskly through the crypt on the first day it was opened to the public since the Pope's funeral.

Some pilgrims complained that they were not allowed to pause and pray, but the security men did allow some of the religious objects that the faithful were carrying such as rosaries and pictures of the Pope to touch the marble of the tomb very briefly.

A band of Polish musicians was allowed to play hymns for several minutes and Polish pilgrims were allowed to loiter for a little longer than others in the line.

But the crowds were not comparable to the human tide which engulfed the city of Rome for many days after the Pope's death was announced.

See Pope John Paul II's tomb beneath St Peter's Basilica

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