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John Paul II's coffin exhumed as millions head to pay homage

Tens of thousands of people began arriving in Rome today ahead of the beatification of Pope John Paul II, one of the biggest events since his funeral in 2005.

The Vatican said his coffin was exhumed 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 tomorrow'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 will then 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.

The 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 the Pope played a key role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

As the Vatican prepares to move the late Pontiff one step closer to sainthood tomorrow, Rome has been caught up with beatification fever.

The city is festooned with posters of the Pope on buses and hanging from lamp posts as the city where he was bishop for 27 years awaits one of the largest crowds since his funeral in 2005, when millions came to pay tribute.

Large television towers are being erected along Via Della Conciliazione, the boulevard leading from the Tiber to the Vatican.

At least several hundred thousand people are expected at the Mass in St Peter's Square on Sunday 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.





Sainthood

At least 16 heads of state and 87 official delegations from around the world will attend the beatification, the last step before sainthood.

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 due to John Paul's intercession with God to perform a miracle, thus permitting the beatification to go ahead.

Another miracle will have to be attributed to John Paul's intercession after the beatification in order for him to be declared a saint.


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