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The coffin of Pope John Paul II disappeared into a closed St. Peter's Basilica today for burial, trailing a procession of cardinals who planned his funeral and to the humming applause of crowds in the square and along Via della Conciliazione estimated at more than a million people.

The pope was being laid to rest privately, with only high-ranking prelates present, in a crypt inside the Vatican grotto.

"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," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the main celebrant of the Mass, said in his homily.

"Today we bury his remains in the earth as a seed of immortality -- our hearts are full of sadness, yet at the same time of joyful hope and profound gratitude."

Ratzinger said that John Paul abided by the words "Follow Me," uttered in the Gospels by a resurrected Jesus to his first disciple, Peter, the first pope of the church.

"Working in a chemical plant, surrounded and threatened by Nazi terror, he heard the voice of the Lord: Follow me!" said Ratzinger, deacon of the College of Cardinals. "In this extraordinary setting he began to read books of philosophy and theology, and then entered the clandestine seminary established by Cardinal Sapieha."

International dignitaries, including President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush and former President Bill Clinton, sat in ruby red upholstered chairs to the right of the coffin and altar during the solemn Mass, which lasted two hours and 40 minutes. Archbishops and other high ranking prelates were to the left. The cardinals were seated for most of the ceremony under the towering columns marking the entrance to the basilica.

A bell atop the basilica tolled shortly before 10 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT) to announce the start of the funeral, which began with a hymn, "Eternal Rest Grant Him, O Lord." Twelve pallbearers wearing white gloves and long tuxedoes carried the wooden coffin on their shoulders, with a 13th pallbearer trailing behind.

The crowds steadily applauded as the pallbearers slowly walked the closed coffin to the front of a large altar and rested it gently upon an Oriental carpet.

The cardinals, among whom the next pope will be selected, followed in the procession, wearing their flowing bright red vestments. Some lost their red zucchettos, or skull caps, in a fickle breeze that kicked up now and then during the Mass.

The wind swept in a blanket of clouds for some of the Mass, but a hazy sun peeked through as well.

A pair of helicopters flew overhead as a security measure.

The ceremony area was sparsely decorated with several green plant arrangements in baskets and two palm trees at the basilica entrance. A crucifix stood next to the altar, which was draped in white cloth.

President Bush arrived in a black suit at the entrance of the basilica at about 9:30 a.m. and was greeted by a cardinal and a few others before taking his seat. Sen. John F. Kerry, the Catholic senator from Massachusetts who faced criticism from some Catholic hierarches for receiving Communion despite favoring abortion rights, also was in attendance. He wore a dark blue suit and blue tie and walked on crutches to a seating area separate from the heads of state, but still close to the funeral proceedings.

People lined up to see the funeral as early as Wednesday night, bringing blankets and camping out.

"This is a blessing just to be here in Rome. To be this close is a grace," said Brother John Donohue, a seminarian with the Legionnaires of Christ.

Donohue, who hails from Pittsburgh, ventured to the square at 3 a.m. and was rewarded with a front row spot in the nearest area not set aside for people with tickets or special credentials.

A meeting with the pope in 1992 led Donohue to pursue the priesthood, he said.

The pope "didn't say anything to me, but he didn't need to," said Donohue.

The streets outside the walls of the Vatican this morning were littered with piles of newspapers, water bottles and other debris left by people who had waited in line for several hours just to get a brief viewing of the pope when he lay in state.

The visitors came from around the globe, including many from Poland, the Holy Father's native country. Waiting for the Mass to begin, many shouted "Vive Papa," or "Long Live the Pope" in Italian. Flags from dozens of countries flapped in the wind, as did a bright yellow sign that read Wadowice, the pontiff's hometown.

Several banners read "Santo Subito," a call in Italian for the pope to be canonized a saint as soon as possible.

During the celebration of the Eucharist, hundreds of priests fanned out into the crowd to distribute Holy Communion. The priests reached over railings to offer the host of unleavened bread, believed by Catholics to be the body of Jesus.

After Communion and the naming of several dozen saints, the patriarchs, archbishops and metropolitans of the Eastern Rite churches prayed for the soul of John Paul II and blessed his body with incense.

Ratzinger then circled the coffin, first tossing holy water on it, then blessing it ritually with incense.

The Mass ended with the cardinals walking two-by-two to the altar and up stairs toward the basilica. They disappeared under the maroon drapery and embroidered tapestry of Jesus at the basilica entrance, and were soon followed by the pallbearers and coffin.


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