The College of Cardinals today set April 18 as the date for the historic start of the conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II, as the Vatican made final arrangements for the funeral that is expected to draw millions of pilgrims and world leaders to Rome.
The decision came after the cardinals read John Paul's spiritual testament during a pre-conclave meeting today, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, adding that the text would be released on Thursday.
Navarro-Valls said the cardinals would celebrate a morning Mass on April 18, then be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel in the early afternoon to start the conclave.
According to church law, prelates are expected to hold at least one ballot on the first day of a conclave. If no one gets the required two-thirds majority after about 12 days, cardinals may change procedure and elect the pope by simple majority.
The date was set on the third day of preparatory meetings of cardinals who have converged on Rome ahead of Friday's funeral and burial of John Paul.
Pilgrims continued to flock to St. Peter's Square today, jamming up streets as they waited for up to 12 hours to pay their final respects to John Paul, who has been lying in state in the basilica since Monday afternoon.
More than 1 million pilgrims will have filed solemnly by the crimson-robed body by the end of today, at a rate of about 15,000-18,000 people an hour in a nearly around-the-clock procession, according to calculations by the Italian civil protection department.
John Paul's spiritual testament, read today, was a 15-page document written in his native Polish over the course of his pontificate starting in 1976, a year after he was elected.
It did not name the mystery cardinal he created in 2003, Navarro-Valls said, ending speculation that a last-minute cardinal might join in the April 18 start of the conclave.
John Paul, who died on Saturday at 84 after a 26-year term as the leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, created the "in pectore" or "in the heart" cardinal in his last consistory. The formula is used when the pope wants to name a cardinal from a country where the church is oppressed. Some observers said the cardinal might be a prelate from China, where the authorities only recognize a state-sanctioned church.
Copies of John Paul's testament will be released in Polish and an Italian translation, Navarro-Valls said.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George told CNN the document was a "very, very moving, spiritual testament of a man who lived with the Lord."
The number of cardinal electors under 80 and thus eligible to vote is 117, but only 116 will enter the conclave after the Philippines Embassy to the Holy See confirmed that Cardinal Jaime Sin, 76, was too ill to attend. Sin had been one of only three cardinal electors who also took part in the 1978 conclave to elect John Paul.
When the cardinals decide on a candidate, the traditional white smoke that for centuries has announced the selection of a new pope to the world will be joined by the tolling of bells. The move is designed to avoid confusion over the color of smoke coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel: black smoke means no two-thirds majority has been reached during a round of balloting, white smoke means a majority has determined the next pope.
In another change from past papal elections, cardinals voting in the conclave will have access to all of Vatican City during the election, as opposed to being sequestered in the Sistine Chapel and allowed to sleep only in the adjoining Apostolic Palace.
Navarro-Valls ruled out that the late pope's body might be brought to St. John Lateran basilica, across Rome, before it is buried on Friday, as was done for Pope Pius XII when he died in 1958.
The spokesman also said that with such crowds already converging on Rome, the Vatican could not meet the requests — "by Romans and non-Romans" alike — for a viewing at what is Rome's cathedral. Instead, John Paul will be buried immediately after the funeral in the grotto under St. Peter's Basilica, he said.
Giant television screens, however, will be set up at St. John Lateran, so that crowds who gather there will be able to view the funeral proceedings, he said.
The crush of pilgrims on the road leading to the Vatican will rise sharply when an expected 2 million Poles arrive in Rome for Friday's funeral.
Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi told reporters the scene was like a cloud, "but it is a cloud that is luminous and full of life."
Italy was calling in extra police to the capital and planned to seal off much of the Eternal City on Friday to protect a VIP contingent that will include President Bush, French President Jacques Chirac, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the presidents of Syria and Iran, among other heads of state.
John Paul made his wish known "to be buried in the ground," said Archbishop Piero Marini, a longtime close aide as papal master of ceremonies.
Marini said John Paul would be buried with a white silk veil on his face, his body clad in liturgical vestments and the white miter. Keeping with tradition, his remains will be placed inside three coffins — wood, zinc and wood — a design meant to slow down the decomposition process.
A small bag of commemorative medals issued over the course of his pontificate, as well as a sealed document featuring a brief description in Latin of John Paul's life, will be buried with him, Marini said.
He said Polish wishes that soil from the pope's native country would be placed in the coffin will go unfulfilled.
In other developments, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, John Paul's personal physician, was quoted as telling La Repubblica newspaper that John Paul "passed away slowly, with pain and suffering which he endured with great human dignity" and "could not utter a single word before passing away."