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BURIAL SITE OF POPE JOHN PAUL II OPENED FOR VIEWING BY THE PUBLIC

Pope John Paul II is buried under a slab of white and gray marble a few feet from the tomb of St. Peter, the original pope of the Catholic Church.

Vatican officials today opened the Vatican Grottoes beneath St. Peter's Basilica for public viewing of the papal burial site.

Clutching rosaries, medals and flowers, thousands of people filed past the tomb. Many handed religious articles to an usher, who touched them to the grave before handing them back.

The pope's simple grave is set off from the others by a single lighted candle atop a small gold box.

Cardinals held a special prayer service Tuesday morning in the crypts. Later, they gave several hundred reporters access to the area.

The pope's marble tombstone bears his name in Latin script, "Joannes Paulus PP. II," and is engraved with the dates of his pontificate, Oct. 16, 1978, to April 2, 2005. A sculpture of Madonna and child hangs on the wall behind the grave.

In his last spiritual testament, written in 1979, John Paul II had made only the request that he be buried "in the bare earth, not in a sarcophagus."

His final resting place is within steps of the Sepulcrum Sancti Petri, a highly decorated area designating St. Peter's tomb.

Unlike the airy basilica, with its towering dome and soaring arches, the grottoes have narrow pathways and ceilings stretching only 11 feet high. Many past popes are buried here, including Paul VI and John Paul I, who both died in 1978.

John Paul II's body occupies the tomb where Pope John XXIII had lain before his remains were placed near the main altar of the basilica after he was beatified in 2000.

St. Peter's Square continued to bustle with visitors four days after the pope's funeral, which drew more than a million people to Rome.

The Vatican post office was especially popular, as tourists flocked to purchase special stamps commemorating the "sede vacante," or vacant See.

The series of stamps, made available for the first time Tuesday, will be valid only until the next pope is chosen.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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