Sea of mourners bid farewell with tears and cheers

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It was the most beautiful show in the world and it reduced thousands of the faithful to tears.

It was the most beautiful show in the world and it reduced thousands of the faithful to tears.

At the climax of the funeral mass for Pope John Paul II, the tolling of the 10-ton bell, the sublime chanting of the Sistine Choir and the swelling of the basilica's organ mingled bizarrely but beautifully with the football terrace-like chant of the crowd - "GIOVANNI PAOLO!" (clap, clap, clap), "GIOVANNI PAOLO!" (clap, clap, clap), as the coffin made its final exit from the place where the Pope had lived and ruled.

They were loath to let this Pope go, but the two sides to this ceremony had different ways of showing it. The peacock-like magnificence of Vatican ceremony, refined over many centuries - the vestments, the choreography of hundreds of bishops, archbishops and cardinals, the army of priests marching into the square to distribute the host - conveyed the message of mystery, the consolations of ritual, the imitation of heaven that is church music. But, from the 300,000-strong crowd in the piazza came the raw message of grief, of woe; a harsh, insistent demand that this Pope's greatness be done full justice at once.

From the start, the piazza was a sea of national flags, mostly Polish, but with British, German, French, American and many others flapping in the frisky spring breeze.

Then suddenly, halfway through the ceremony, a host of new banners shot into the air. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, deacon of the College of Cardinals, was just coming to the end of his sermon.

"None of us can ever forget," he said, his voice choking with emotion, "how in that last Easter Sunday of his life the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing ... We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, that he sees us and blesses us."

Right across the piazza they rose as one, each with the terse message: "SANTO SUBITO!" [sainthood right now]. It was not a suggestion but a demand.

If Cardinal Ratzinger was right about the Pope standing at his heavenly window, Pope Wojtyla would doubtless have been smiling as well as blessing: because the Vatican peace diplomacy of which he was such a tireless advocate received another jolt of life as the scale of his achievement sunk in.

Four kings, five queens, one heir to the throne (the Prince of Wales) and 70 presidents and prime ministers were attending the funeral, including George Bush and Tony Blair. And there was that excruciating moment when the Prince of Wales, seated next to Robert Mugabe, shook the Zimbabwean President's hand. Clarence House later explained that by saying the Prince was "caught by surprise and not in a position to avoid it ... the Prince finds the Mugabe regime abhorrent". Even the Pope would have had difficulty waving a wand over that bilateral relationship just now.

And yet, at the end of the ceremony, as the VIPs were being ushered from the square, Israel's President Moshe Katsav succeeded in being pleasant to the heads of no less than three Muslim nations with which Israel has no diplomatic ties: Syria, Iran and Algeria.

"The Syrian President [Bashar Assad] sat in the chair behind me ... we exchanged smiles and shook hands," Mr Katsav told an Israeli newspaper's website. Mr Katsav, who was born in Iran, said he also chatted with the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, in his native tongue, Farsi, about their common city of birth. "The President of Iran extended his hand to me. I shook it and told him in Farsi, 'May peace be upon you,' Mr Katsav said. It was also reported that he embraced the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

As people chew over the Polish Pope's legacy in these weeks of mourning, it is his attempt to undo two millennia of odium between Christianity and Judaism that strikes many as one of his most extraordinary achievements. It culminated in his visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall in 1996, when he left a prayer asking God's forgiveness for the sins of Christians against Jews.

And in his will, released to the media on Thursday, the importance to the Pope himself of that initiative was made plain when the former chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, was one of only three people named in it. Yesterday Mr Toaff said of the mention in the will: "It is a very important, moving fact, that I did not expect. It is a significant and profound gesture for Jews. But I think it is also an indication to the Catholic world ... The request for forgiveness was one of the greatest gestures of Pope John Paul."

Rome, capital of the Church as well as of Italy, came to a standstill for the funeral. They are used to the crowds that have always poured in for big papal occasions, but this was on a scale beyond anything the authorities have seen or imagined. The only way to contain it was to put the city to sleep for the day. All private car traffic was banned from the city for the whole of yesterday - not just to the centre but as far away as the outer ring road. Buses took bizarre new routes to leave room for the speeding, blaring escorts of the hundreds of foreign dignitaries.

Schools, shops and offices started the weekend a day early. There were four million visitors compared to the three million Romans. It was no contest, the Romans conceded graciously. And the vast, baggy event was policed with panache.

One scare detracted from the day's success: after the funeral, two Italian Air Force F-16s scrambled and forced down a Lear jet over the city, which they feared might contain a bomb. It was a false alarm: the plane was Macedonian, and had been dispatched to collect that country's President.

Romans had woken up to a city as quiet as the tomb. They put their noses out of their doors - in the district of Prati, for example, close to the Vatican; around the Circus Maximus, ancient Rome's site for chariot races; at the modern Olympic stadium - and found an army of occupation, mostly Polish (there were said to be two million Polish pilgrims) but with large contingents from every continent, except Antarctica.

It's been nearly a century and a half since Italy's new secular, unitary government elbowed the Pope from power in the Eternal City and made Rome the capital of Italy instead. Yesterday, the Vatican took the city back for a day, and the citizens, still overwhelmingly Catholic though fewer and fewer go to church, were happy to indulge it.

The conundrum of this week, however, remains to be unpicked. The last time a pope died - John Paul I, in 1978 - 750,000 people filed past his corpse. Far fewer paid their farewells to John XXIII in 1963, even though the " papa buono", "the good pope", was the most beloved of modern times due to his sweet nature. Why should John Paul II, this tough, driving, relentless Pope, the man who polarised the Church more than any recent predecessor, who "refused to listen" as many prelates complain, pull five times as many people to Rome as any pope before him? Why should his death provoke huge observances across the world, even in countries hostile to the Church such as Israel and Iran?

Partial answers abound, but none fully satisfies. If the cardinals, who from Monday week will be entering the Sistine Chapel to elect his successor, can find the true reason, they may have some idea where to look for his successor.