By Carmen Elena Villa
VATICAN CITY, APRIL 2, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Since 2005 when Pope John Paul II passed away, the Vatican grottoes where his tomb is found has become one of the most frequented tourist sites in Rome.
Officials at St. Peter’s Basilica told ZENIT that an average of 12,000 people visit the tomb each day. It’s open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 in the evening (6 in the summer). Many pontiffs rest near John Paul II, not least on the list, the first Pontiff ever: St. Peter.
An announcer in several languages calls visitors to silence and recollection, reminding that the place is sacred.
The entrance to the grottoes is made from the right of St. Peter’s. Tourists descending the stairs will also see remains of columns from the first basilica, built under Constantine in the years 326-333.
They will come across the tomb of Callistus III and then the tombs of Boniface VIII, Nicholas III, Innocence VII, Nicholas V, Paul II, Paul VI, Marcellus II, John Paul I and Innocence IX.
Some of the tombs show the image of the Pope buried there — the same images that can be seen in St. Paul Outside the Walls, which is adorned with the portraits of the unbroken line of 266 popes.
In a recent visit to the tomb, this correspondent noted that the great majority arrive specifically to find John Paul II’s resting place. Others, particularly older visitors, pause before the tombs of Paul VI and John Paul I. Some ask where John XXIII is found (since 2002, his resting place is in the basilica. John Paul II now rests where the Good Pope’s tomb used to lie).
There is always a guard at John Paul II’s tomb. He asks those who want to pause in prayer to move back to a roped-off space, leaving the passageway clear. Many come to leave flowers, rosaries, medals and other sacred items. Some just look with curiosity.
“Since John Paul II died, we’ve had to organize everything differently, due to the number of pilgrims who come every day from around the world,” a custodian of the tomb explained to ZENIT. “There is not a single day in which a multitude doesn’t come.”
Previously, access to the grottoes was from within the basilica itself. There weren’t clear signs and few descended. Today pilgrims come asking how to find the remains of the Polish Pope.
“I loved seeing it because this is the first time I’ve been here,” one pilgrim from Spain told ZENIT, just after visiting the tomb. “I’ve always read and heard about him and I liked him a lot and it has moved me to see where he is buried. I loved the atmosphere and the attitudes of the people.”
Another Spanish pilgrim told us that seeing the tomb was one of his principal goals in coming to Rome.
“I admire his simplicity and closeness with the people,” he said. “It was too bad when he died because he was so important, because he left a mark in the history of Christianity and also in the history of the world.”
An Argentinean pilgrim affirmed that she was excited to visit his resting place. “Seeing the tomb of John Paul II, the memory of his life came to my mind. He was a very simple person, human, close. It was a great sadness when he died, even though the Pope we now have is also a marvelous person.”
So, amid the sacred music always playing in this space so as to favor recollection, the pilgrims recall and thank that Pontiff who died on an April 2 like today, accompanied by the prayers of tens of thousands of faithful in St. Peter’s Square.
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On the Net:
Webcam of John Paul II’s tomb: www.vaticanstate.va/EN/Monuments/webcam/index?cam=webcam2&testo=Tomba%20di%20Giovanni%20Paolo%20II