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Waiting to see the pope's body takes patience, endurance

ROME—Feet hurt but spines were stiff Wednesday in the thick, snaking line that dissected Vatican City and oozed into the streets of Rome.

Rome's never seen anything like this crowd of people determined to go the last mile-and-a-half to pay their final respects to Pope John Paul II, even if might take 12 to 24 hours to trudge into St. Peter's Basilica.

The line inched across the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge and west past the Umberto I Bridge.

On any other day, this path to St. Peter's Basilica would be a 20- to 25-minute stroll. On Wednesday, it was a marathon.

The line's mother tongue still was mostly Italian, and the pope's paesani came from every part of the country. But there were accents from every continent and the curious from many faiths.

A Moroccan man in a white silk robe and a crimson fez he wears when he visits his mosque traveled from Casablanca because the pope once traveled to Morocco. A couple from England—Anglicans, not Catholics—queued up for a once-in-a-lifetime memory. Several Cornell University students studying in Rome queued up for a view of how the Italians were managing the masses and because humanity and history beckoned them.

Proud Poles from the pope's homeland joined the queue in droves, arriving by bus, train, plane and, for Monika Knapkiewicz, "by a very old car." She and four friends drove round-the-clock from Gdansk in northern Poland in a 15-year-old auto.

"It was a very quick decision because John Paul II was also our father. We felt we had to be here because we are Polish," said the university student.

A Polish-American contingent from Chicago stood out because they wore the dress of the Polish Highlands, the Tatra Mountain area near Zakopane in southern Poland where Karol Wojtyla once skied.

They arrived in Italy Wednesday, changed their clothes and got in line.

"We're going to have water, buy some food and survive through our faith," said Helen Majerczyk, who with her husband, Andy, owns a trucking business.

"I haven't slept for 30 hours—another 20 isn't going to make a difference."

Andy Majerczyk wore a lambskin vest, white wool embroidered pants and a lambskin hat with a Polish eagle feather sticking out of it.

"I think the Holy Father would like to see us in this," he said. "He always paid special attention to us."

Friendships were developing. Provisions were shared. Tips were traded about portable toilet sightings.

Christine and Neville Thompson, from Durham County in northeast England, were steeling themselves for the long promenade to St. Peter's. An Italian woman next to them in line tapped them on the shoulders, offering gum. They took it.

"You make friends in line here," said Christine Thompson, 55, a retiree. "We're very sturdy people. We just thought it would be a shame not to be with everybody."

Her husband added, "We'll never see this again."

The Thompsons are Anglicans. "It's Henry VIII's fault," said Christine Thompson, referring to the British monarch who split with the Catholic Church.

Sister Elia Licona, a nun with the Mexico-based Oblates of Jesus Sacerdote, brought reading material, a book in Spanish about the spiritual reflections of St. Edith Stein, who was canonized by John Paul II.

The book was 335 pages. Sister Elia was on page 100. She said she could always read the book a second or third time.

Based in Rome now, she helps with household tasks for a missionary priest order. In the seconds she'll have to pay her respects to the pope, she said she'll "ask him to intercede for us with God, for the church and the whole world."

From Morocco came Dominic Orlando, who said he's a television journalist. But he had no cameras and said he was there simply as an admirer of John Paul II. He recalled seeing the pope speak in Morocco 20 years ago.

"He came to visit us and I came to pay him back," said Orlando, resplendent in a brilliant white robe, crimson fez and pointy white babouch shoes. "I represent all my Muslim friends from Morocco. I come for all of them."

Several students from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., who are studying in Rome, lined up. Alex Norton, 21, of Jackson Hole, Wyo., is studying urban planning. He's not Catholic, nor is Meredith Lynn, 21, from Galveston, Texas, or Rebecca Liu, 20, from Chicago.

"We spend most of our time in Ithaca, where nothing happens. For once, I'm someplace where the world is coming to," said Lynn. "To not see this would be a lost opportunity, because things like this don't happen often in a lifetime."

As urban planning students, they're curious about how Rome is rerouting traffic, funneling crowds and dispatching thousands of volunteers to provide free water for the faithful.

But Norton is also curious about seeing the pope's body. "I'm not really religious. But I want to experience this as a once-in-a-lifetime spirituality," Norton said. "I want to learn from the people around me and know the feeling you get walking into St. Peter's. It's a big deal."


(Montemurri reports for the Detroit Free Press.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RELIG-POPE

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