Tomb of John Paul II

A Visit to the Vatican 2005

I am in the queue to visit the tomb of Pope John Paul II. It is ten o’clock in the morning in Vatican City, nine days since the funeral of Karol Woityla took place. Tripods and white tents dot the roofs around St Peter’s Basilica, preparing for the Conclave that will elect a new Pope in two days time. But the minds of those around me are intent on honouring the old on this day.

I had taken the metro from the centre of Rome, squeezing into a carriage with hundreds of tourists, pilgrims, clergy, and local families. We breathed fresh air again as street sellers beckoned us with umbrellas; despite the warm and sunny morning the weather was due to change. The line to view the Pope’s resting place in the crypt beneath St Peter’s Basilica wound its way from Michelangelo’s Collonades, through the entrance hall of the Basilica, down its side, before reaching steps underground. People chatter pleasantly in the morning, with strengthening outpourings of rain resisted by flourishes of freshly purchased umbrellas.

Not until we enter the crypt does a hush fall on the crowd, and chatters turn to whispers. Down the narrow corridor lined with relics camera flashes illuminate a turn in the path. A huge market was already in evidence for those travelling to Rome exclusively for Karol Woityla: stalls and postcard shops laboured under images of the late Pope, some sold copies of his letters and books. The recent mourning was definitely over, and the street merchandise recognised the public’s celebratory endorsement of the life he had led. Banners were draped from city residences, “Giovanni Pablo II: Santo”. I got the sense that a long era of devotion to the late Polish Pontiff was only just beginning. A hush of respect and anticipation bound the queue around the Vatican Grotto’s white corridors.

We pass the ornate resting places of his predecessors, and the eloquently simple tomb of his neighbours, John Paul I and Paul VI. There are 60 popes buried in the vast underground crypt, including St. Peter. St. Peter’s Chapel faces directly the down the corridor, meeting firstly the alcove containing the tomb of John Paul II. This inlet contained Pope John XXIII until his beatification in 2001. He now lies in the Basilica above.

Two Nuns pray in a cordoned off area facing the tomb. I hear ushers urging people to move on quickly, accommodating the swelling crowd outside. My turn comes to witness. Even though I have read about the tomb in advance I am quite struck by its simplicity: there is a red oil lamp burning in front of a flat headstone, raising towards the back. The formation reminds me of the moment the Pope’s Coffin was held aloft for the last time on the steps of St Peter’s, and offered towards the Funeral congregation. In the tomb a white marble slab is inscribed in Latin: “Joannes Paulus II, 1920-2005”. A small floral decoration at the rear of the area completes the effect. I take my photograph and move on.


- John McCarthy