Pilgrims View Body of Pope John XXIII in New Coffin

Long line forms as visitors wait for glimpse of beloved pontiff's see-through coffin.

VATICAN CITY (RNS)-- Pilgrims and tourists formed a long line Monday (June 4) to see the body of Pope John XXIII displayed in a bronze and crystal coffin in St. Peter's Basilica 38 years after his death.

Workmen moved the casket to its new resting place at the Altar of St. Jerome near the end of the central nave Sunday night after a Mass for the Solemnity of Pentecost, which Pope John Paul II devoted to his "venerated predecessor."

More than 50,000 people attending the Mass in St. Peter's Square watched the 900-pound coffin carried in procession from the church to the outdoor altar. Following the Mass, it was placed temporarily on view at the basilica's main altar.

Recalling John XXIII's "brief but intense pontificate," John Paul noted the importance of the Second Vatican Council, which John XXIII convened in 1962, but said "the most precious gift left by Pope John to the People of God was himself, his testimony of holiness."

After John XXIII, known as "the good pope," died of stomach cancer on Pentecost, June 3, 1963, his remains were placed in the Vatican grottoes. John Paul ordered the move to St. Peter's Basilica, where only two other popes are interred, following his beatification of John XXIII on Sept. 3, 2000.

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The coffin was placed below an 18th century copy in mosaics of Domenichino's painting of "The Last Communion of St. Jerome." Two candles burned at either end, and a wrought iron fence kept visitors several feet away.

Vatican officials reported that they found John XXIII's body remarkably well preserved when they opened his coffin earlier this year, but a light protective mask of wax now covers his features.

The Vatican commissioned the Italian sculptor Novello Finotti to make four panels of bronze relief covered with gold leaf to represent scenes from the pope's life.

The sculptor used figures of doves, lambs, a pomegranate and an olive branch to depict Vatican II, the pope's commitment to ecumenical dialogue and his encyclicals "Mater et Magistra" (Christianity and Social Progress) and "Pacem in Terris" (Peace on Earth).

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