WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- The Italian habit of applauding at funerals may seem frivolous and out of place to some other cultures, but it was a fitting send-off for Pope John Paul II at his funeral Friday. Emotions ran high in St. Peter's Square. Every few minutes in the long, open-air ceremony, a fresh burst of applause would ricochet around Bernini's vast, circular colonnade, with its ring of stone saints outlined against the soft white cathedrals of swiftly moving clouds on a windy morning.
Tens of thousands packed the square, spilling over into the length and width of Via della Conciliazione that leads to the Tiber River. As they applauded and wept, they chanted "santo, santo" in Italian and variations in a dozen other languages. They were calling for the dead pope's immediate canonization as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
In his lifetime, Pope John Paul II had considerably shortened the lengthy procedures for creating new saints, but the crowd seemed to be demanding sainthood by proclamation (an impossibility in the absence of a reigning pope) for the man who nearly 26 years ago had first stood on the balcony of the same basilica for the first time, a virtual unknown outside church circles -- but the new pope.
To many, Rome does not ordinarily convey a feeling of being a capital, but on Friday it was the center of the world. Pope John Paul II had given a literal meaning to the title of spiritual head of the universal church by visiting virtually every corner of it. Now the global village was returning the compliment by coming to say a last farewell to its pastor: world leaders as well as ordinary people by the hundreds of thousands, rich and poor, believers and non-believers alike.
There was an overwhelming sense of historic continuity in the three-hour liturgical rite conducted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals. The liturgy was in Latin, which was the universal language of worship for a church that had long since "gone native" in its worship. The Sistine Chapel choir sung Palestrina's mass, as earlier generations of choristers had done at other papal funerals for centuries; the mournful, repetitious incantation of the Litany of the Saints asking "All the saints, patriarchs, and prophets," and "Saint Mary comfort of the Roman people" --among others -- to pray for the dead pope always has a medieval ring to it.
Pope John Paul's plain cypress coffin, which at the start of the ceremony was placed on an oriental carpet in the square, was subsequently sheathed in two other coffins one zinc and an outer box of oak and buried in the tomb once occupied by Pope John XXIII, the latter having been moved some time ago to another site under the main basilica altar: The great progressive pontiff who had launched the Second Vatican Council was making room for the strict doctrinal traditionalist.
The images of red-robed cardinals and helmeted Swiss Guards were relayed across the globe by television in a fitting media tribute to a pope who during his pontificate had taken full advantage of modern communications to get his message across. Millions of viewers everywhere had watched the funeral, in some locations getting up at the crack of dawn to follow the ceremony.
In his emotional homily, Ratzinger had recalled perhaps the most familiar image of all. Pointing to the third-floor window of the Vatican Palace that was the pope's study, he recalled how John Paul would appear to bless the crowd. "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." John Paul would surely have been gratified to see that the frieze of world leaders attending the ceremony included some who would not ordinarily be in the same room together, such as President George Bush and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and the U.S. president and the Syrian head of state, Bashar al Assad. The Bush administration wants Iran to stop its nuclear development program and accuses Syria of not doing enough to halt insurgents from slipping across its borders into Iraq.
Other distinguished guests included King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain with socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (Bush hasn't spoken to him yet either), President Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, political leader of the world's largest Catholic community, and Charles, the Prince of Wales who postponed his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles to be present at the funeral.
At the Vatican the burial of one pope is a beginning as well as a final act -- the beginning of a process of selecting a successor in an election scheduled to start on April 18. The conclave of 1979 broke with tradition in the very act of perpetuating it by electing the first non-Italian pope since 1522. Vatican experts were speculating that Pope John Paul II might have the added distinction of being the last of the unbroken line of European popes. There was a strong possibility that the 117 electors would this time choose a Third World cardinal.