Huge throngs pray, sing in final farewell to a beloved pope

Huge throngs of pilgrims waved Polish flags, prayed the rosary and sang hymns as they packed the cobblestoned streets leading up to the Vatican on Friday to bid an emotional farewell to Pope John Paul II.

The Via della Conciliazione boulevard was jammed with crowds of people, many seated on streets where they had spent a chilly night in sleeping bags or wrapped in blankets.

As they waited for the pope's pomp-filled funeral to begin, some sang hymns to strains of guitar music or breakfasted on sandwiches, oranges and bottled water. Poles were everywhere, waving red and white national flags for the first Polish-born pope.

"I came because I love the pope," said Sabina Lufaro, 23, a singer from Turin among the faithful trying to get close enough to St. Peter's Square to watch the funeral on one of several giant screens. "I have all this love for a very big person. He was loved by all the world."

Video screens also were set up across Rome for pilgrims who couldn't get near Vatican City, which occupies only 109 acres (44 hectares).

Young people in jeans and backpacks mingled with nuns, priests, monks and bishops clad in religious habits on streets mostly cleared of traffic after Rome authorities imposed a daylong ban on cars and trucks. Schools and government offices closed for the day, and many private businesses did not open out of respect for the pope.

City parks were dotted with tents, and people in sleeping bags dozed on benches. Some slept directly on the cobblestones, wrapped in brown blankets handed out by first aid workers.

Since John Paul's death on Saturday, some 4 million pilgrims have visited Vatican City and its surroundings, Rome police chief Marcello Fulvi said.

"I came because the figure of the pope is historic. I came to say thank you and to say goodbye," said Mercedes Serrat, a 65-year-old housewife from Madrid, Spain.

Security was tight for the funeral, which drew heads of state and monarchs from more than 80 countries. Metal detectors were set up at the entrance to St. Peter's, and police were running bags and purses through X-ray machines, causing the line to slow and some pilgrims to whistle and boo in protest.

Anticipating an exodus after the funeral, Rome's city council said it was trying to organize three "human corridors" to channel people from around St. Peter's to points where they could catch shuttle buses to train stations.

On Thursday, people had their last chance to file past John Paul's velvet-robed body at St. Peter's Basilica, where he was to be laid to rest after Friday's Mass. Despite pleas from disappointed pilgrims, police blocked off the long line of faithful Thursday evening to ensure that preparations for Friday's funeral could begin.

One group of friends from Warsaw, in John Paul's homeland of Poland, traveled by car for 24 hours but didn't make it in time. Crushed, they waited outside the police barricades, holding a Polish flag.

"The hardest thing is that we'll never see him again," said 21-year-old Michal Kunela.

NIKO PRICE, Associated Press Writer

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