Pope John Paul body exhumed ahead of beatification

Fri Apr 29, 2011 12:35pm EDT
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By Philip Pullella and Catherine Hornby

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul's coffin was exhumed on 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 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 this Sunday, Rome has been caught up with beatification fever.   Continued...

<p>A figurine of Pope John Paul II is displayed in a religious shop in Rome April 29, 2011. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico</p>