VATICAN CITY – As hundreds of thousands of people waited in lines up to 24 hours Wednesday to file past the funeral catafalque of Pope John Paul II, the College of Cardinals established April 18 as the date to begin the conclave that will elect his successor.

The conclave will open with a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, after which the cardinal-electors will proceed to the Sistine Chapel, where they will start their secret deliberations.

More than 90 of the church’s 183 cardinals have assembled in Rome and on Wednesday they were read the contents of the pope’s will. No details were disclosed, but Chicago Cardinal Francis George told reporters “it’s a spiritual testament and especially at the end, it’s very moving.”

The 15-page document, written over the course of John Paul’s 26-year pontificate, will be made public Thursday, according to Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman.

Meanwhile, all roads truly led to Rome as hundreds of thousands of people continued to converge on St. Peter’s.

More than a million mourners have already filed by the crimson-robed body of the pope that rests beneath the basilica’s great dome. By Wednesday afternoon, the lines of people waiting to enter the basilica had grown so long that Vatican officials said no more could be accommodated before Friday morning’s funeral.

Carrying umbrellas for protection against the sun and picnic baskets for sustenance during the long wait, pilgrims stood 10 abreast in lines that snaked nearly a mile, from the steps of St. Peter’s to the banks of the Tiber.

Police cut off the line late Wednesday. They estimated that those at the end of the line would have to wait 24 hours. That didn’t bother Mary Nagle of West Cork, Ireland, who flew from Dublin to Rome early Wednesday, fully aware that visiting the body of John Paul II would involve a marathon wait.

She came prepared with water, food and extra clothes – everything but a map that would show her where to line up.

She recalled the pope’s 1979 visit to Ireland, ticking off the cities he had visited then: Dublin, Knock, Limerick, Maynooth.

“I was a child and went to see him in Galway,” she said, as twilight signaled the beginning of a long night. “He was so many places, I can do this.”

Stasia Duraj, 39, and her husband, Mark, 37, of Toronto, were also undeterred by the long lines. They said they could not pass up their “first and last time to see the pope,” so they booked flights and headed for the airport Wednesday. Arriving in Rome, they hauled their luggage to the back of the line. They didn’t bother reserving a hotel room, assuming they would spend the night in line.

The influx has nearly overwhelmed Rome, which is no stranger to huge crowds. About 2 million pilgrims attended the Vatican-sponsored World Youth Day festival in 2000, but that event was planned well in advance.

“You usually organize events six to eight months in advance. Here we find ourselves having to organize and address issues hour by hour,” said Luca Odevaine, deputy chief of the Rome government department in charge of special events.

“It’s definitely hard to deal with 400,000 people already here on Sunday, and in only two days we’ve had another 700,000 people arrive,” he said. Pilgrims will be housed in schools, sports stadiums and open fields, including the grounds of the ancient Circus Maximus, where Romans once ran their chariot races.

Some 600 doctors and nurses and 200 ambulances have been mobilized to deal with medical emergencies.

The problems will be compounded during the funeral Friday when 2 million or more people attempt to crowd into St. Peter’s Square, which can accommodate about 800,000.

The biggest concern is a terror attack. With about 200 heads of state, including President Bush, expected to attend Friday’s funeral, Italian authorities are scrambling to organize a security lockdown.

A “red zone” will be set up around the basilica, with access restricted to people participating in the funeral. Police snipers will be stationed on nearby rooftops, and dogs will be used to sniff out explosives, according to ANSA, the Italian news agency.

Anti-aircraft batteries have been set up around the city, and Italian air force jet fighters will be on standby during the funeral, according to Col. Massimo Fogari, a Defense Ministry spokesman.

One delicate issue that will have to be finessed is the outright ban on guns inside the Vatican.

“The Vatican allows no guns,” said Odevaine, the special-events official. “We have to follow that rule. No guns are admitted in the Vatican. Not even for the bodyguards escorting heads of state.”

He also said that each VIP would be allowed one bodyguard. “The rest of them will have to sit and wait in their cars,” he said.

An exception is expected to be made for Bush, who arrived Wednesday evening and went immediately to St. Peter’s to pay his respects to Pope John Paul II. He was accompanied by his wife, Laura, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

One mystery that will apparently remain unresolved, at least for the time being, is the identity of a cardinal who was named “in pectore” or “in the heart” by the pope at the last consistory in 2003.

This device is used when the pope fears some harm may come to the cardinal or the church if his name becomes public. Some church observers believe the unknown cardinal might be from China, where relations with the Vatican are tense.

“The pope did not pronounce the name of the cardinal,” Navarro-Valls confirmed at Wednesday’s news conference.

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Of the church’s 183 cardinals only 117 are under age 80 and thus eligible to participate in the conclave. At least one of the eligible cardinals, Jaime Sin of the Philippines, will not attend due to illness. Reflecting the Vatican’s penchant for secrecy, the cardinals have agreed not to speak to the media after the pope’s funeral for the 10 days leading up to the conclave.

“We’d like that to be an intense period of preparation,” Chicago’s Cardinal George said, with the cardinals spending their time before the April 18 conclave in prayer and reflection on the job of selecting a new pope – the greatest responsibility of their post.

More than in previous papal transitions, media have published and broadcast pointed comments made by cardinals since the death of John Paul II.

Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, often mentioned as a possible successor, told Italy’s Messagero newspaper that “the West is not yet ready for a black pope.”

Cardinal Bernard Agre, from Ivory Coast, agreed. “Psychologically and spiritually, the West is not ready,” he said. “An African pope would be a challenge for the church and for the world of the media.”

Another prominent cardinal, Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, was quoted as saying that “choosing is going to be difficult. We must find a man like John Paul II, a real man with distinguished qualities – mystic, prophet, human and, at the same time, charismatic.”


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