VATICAN CITY - Clutching rosaries, medals and flowers, thousands of people filed past the simple white marble tomb of Pope John Paul II on Wednesday, as the Vatican reopened the grottoes beneath St. Peter's Basilica for the first time since the pope died.
Some said they had come not only to pray for John Paul, but also to pray to him. Many Roman Catholics believe John Paul, who died April 2 at age 84, was a saint.
"I'm hoping maybe for a little miracle," said Myrna Palmer, 67, of Hagerstown, Maryland, in the eastern United States. "I'm praying to him that my husband gets his eyesight back."
Pilgrims lined up in the crisp morning air as early as 4 a.m., three hours before the grottoes were reopened.
"We are Catholics, and we had to see the pope one last time," said Angelo de Tommaso, a 30-year-old accountant who traveled overnight by bus from the southern Italian town of Ginosa to be among the first in line.
Pilgrims knelt before the grave to pray, and many handed religious articles to an usher, who touched them to the grave before handing them back.
But ushers kept the crowd moving quickly, even hurrying some people who knelt in prayer. Many of the faithful were disappointed that they didn't get a chance to spend more time in reflection.
"It was very quick. They were going, `Avanti, avanti, avanti,'" said Jim Neil, 52, of Glasgow, Scotland. "Just a quick genuflection, a quick sign of the cross, and it was, `Move on.'"
The tomb sits alone in an arched alcove to the right of the main altar of the central nave, a leafy potted lily behind it and a small red candle burning at the front. A marble relief of the Madonna and Child hangs on the wall above.
A rectangular white slab of marble with gray streaks marks the grave. On one line it bears his name carved with gold in Latin script: "IOANNES PAULUS PPII." (PP is the Latin abbreviation for pope.) And on another line are the dates of his 26-year pontificate using the Roman numerals for the month: "16 X, 1978-2 IV, 2005."
Underneath is the interlocking X and P - the monogram for Christ.
The grave lies just steps from the tomb traditionally believed to be that of the apostle Peter, the first pope.
Some of the cardinals who will sequester themselves inside Vatican City next week to choose a new pope prayed by the grave Tuesday evening in their last homage before the grottoes were reopened to the public.
Two-by-two, in crimson robes and tall white bishops' miters, they stood at the foot of the marble slab and bowed their heads.
On Wednesday, the cardinals resumed their preparations for the conclave, which begins Monday, and they also met the Vatican diplomatic corps, which formally presented condolences.
"John Paul II wasn't content to just issue exhortations through his encyclicals, his pastoral letters, his homilies and other papal documents, but he wanted to be personally near each man; that's why he made pilgrimages around the world," said Ambassador Giovanni Galassi, the dean of the diplomatic corps and ambassador of San Marino.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, noted in his response that during John Paul's papacy, the Vatican doubled the number of countries with which it has diplomatic relations.
The cardinals are meeting daily to pray for guidance, to manage the mundane affairs of the church and contemplate the task ahead: choosing a new pope. It will be the first conclave for all but two of the 115 cardinals who will cast ballots.
If recent history is any guide, the voting may go quickly. Of the eight 20th century conclaves, no election went longer than five days, and two of them were completed on the second day. It took just eight ballots over three days to choose the relatively unknown archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, in 1978.
On Friday, the first rounds of swearing-in ceremonies will take place ahead of the conclave for people who will be involved but aren't cardinals: priests who will hear confessions, doctors, housekeepers, technicians who will sweep the Sistine Chapel for bugs, the bus drivers who will transport the cardinals to and from the chapel each day, even the elevator operators who will take them up and down from the chapel.
The ceremonies to mourn the pope drew a stunning assemblage of religious and political leaders to Rome, as well as 3 million pilgrims, the Vatican said. But most left within a day of the burial.
The reopening of the grottoes was expected to draw a new wave of pilgrims.
The grave satisfies John Paul's wishes, written in the margin of his last will, that he be buried "in the bare earth, not a tomb."
His plot is one of only a few dug in the ground in the central nave of the grottoes, the vast series of low-ceilinged chapels and alcoves under the basilica where popes have been buried over the centuries.
Most of the popes are ensconced in aboveground marble sarcophagi, some of them like that of Benedict XV and Pius XI elaborately carved in the images of the man inside.
Brigett Vasquez, 37, a Mexican housewife living in San Leandro, Calif., came to view the pope's body on display at the basilica last week and waited 14 hours in line - only to end up on the far side of the throng where she never even got a glimpse. Pilgrims also formed long lines to gain access to St. Peter's Square for John Paul's funeral last Friday.
"We came seeking blessings for the whole family, for those who couldn't come," said Vasquez, who returned Wednesday to see the tomb. "My family was crying because there wasn't enough money for all of us to come."