VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II’s coffin was exhumed Friday ahead of his beatification as tens of thousands of people began arriving in Rome for one of the biggest events since his funeral in 2005.
The Vatican said the coffin was removed from the crypts below St. Peter’s Basilica while top Vatican officials and some of the late pope’s closest aides looked on and prayed.
Those present at the ceremony included Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, his personal secretary and right-hand man for decades, and the Polish nuns who ran the papal household for 27 years.
The wooden coffin will be placed in front of the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. After Sunday’s beatification Mass, it will remain in that spot and the basilica will remain open until all visitors who want to view it have done so.
It then will be moved to a new crypt under an altar in a side chapel near Michelangelo’s statue of the Pieta. The marble slab that covered his first burial place will be sent to Poland.
Beatification is the last step before sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
The late pope is being beatified on the day the Church celebrates the movable Feast of Divine Mercy, which this year happens to fall on May 1, the most important feast in the communist world.
The coincidence is ironic, given that many believe John Paul played a key role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Rome has been caught up with beatification fever.
At least several hundred thousand people are expected at the Mass in St. Peter’s Square tomorrow when John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, will pronounce a Latin formula declaring one of the most popular popes in history a “blessed” of the Church.
At least 16 heads of state and 87 official delegations from around the world will attend the beatification.
The Vatican has deemed that the otherwise inexplicable cure of a French nun, Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was because of John Paul’s intercession with God to perform a miracle, thus permitting the beatification.
Another miracle must be attributed to John Paul’s intercession after the beatification for him to be declared a saint.