German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has emerged as a frontrunner in the race to find John Paul II's successor as thousands of pilgrims paid their respects at the tomb of the late pope, open to the public for the first time.
Cardinal Ratzinger was a close confidante of John Paul II
With only five days remaining before the opening of a conclave next Monday, Italian media reported growing support for Ratzinger, who was the Holy See's doctrinal enforcer and a close confidant of the Polish-born pope.
Despite official secrecy surrounding the cardinals' daily congregations, or general meetings, before next Monday's conclave, the Italian media is alive with prognostications -- fuelled by leaks -- about the voting patterns which will decide the identity of the next pope.
La Repubblica daily said Ratzinger could already count on at least 40, if not 50, votes from among the 115 cardinal electors who will take part in the conclave. To be elected, a candidate must win two-thirds of the vote, or 77 votes.
At 78, Ratzinger is seen as a possible "transition" pope since he is one of the oldest candidates.
Hoping for short conclave
Cardinal Ratzinger (l) served at the pope's funeral
La Repubblica reported the German has the support of several Latin American cardinals, as well as two powerful Italians, Cardinals Camillo Ruini and Angelo Sodano -- both seemingly intent of scuttling the chances of fellow Italian Dionigi Tettamanzi.
The Corriere della Sera newspaper reported that Ratzinger was also benefitting from the fact that his opponents have for the time being failed to agree on another candidate.
Most Church leaders hope for a short conclave, according to Italian media. Cardinals are eager to project an image of unity by electing a pope as early as Wednesday or Thursday, the daily Il Messaggero wrote on Wednesday.
Ratzinger is reportedly particularly eager to find the 264th successor of Peter quickly, and La Repubblica reported that he would withdraw his "candidacy" if he fails to garner the two-thirds majority needed on the first day.
Pope's tomb draws faithful
This picture released by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano shows faithful coming to pray in front of the tomb of late Pope John Paul II in the grottos of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday April 13, 2005.
Meanwhile, thousands of pilgrims, some weeping, bore prayers and messages of love to the simple marble-slab tomb of as the Vatican opened the crypt of St Peter's basilica shortly after dawn.
"It's moving to see him shut up in a tomb," said Rosa Sgarenella, from Bari in southern Italy, as she left the vaulted crypt. "We remember him being so alive."
Mourners paused to pray before the grave -- inscribed with his name in Latin, Ioannes Paulus II, and the years of his life: 1920-2005 -- and ushers quietly prodded the stream of pilgrims to move along.
John Paul II was interred Friday but Vatican officials agreed to wait until Wednesday to open the crypt. Italian authorities had requested the delay, fearing hundreds of thousands of followers in Rome for his funeral would remain to visit the tomb.
Many determined pilgrims remained in the city anyway. Graziella Valmori, a French woman of Italian origin, was the first in the queue, arriving nearly three hours before the crypt opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT). "He was so good, he deserved all this," said Valmori. She drove from France last week to see the pope lying in state at the basilica and remained in Rome to see his tomb.