The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Flash of tricolour at Pope funeral

April 8: Bobbing up and down like a speck in the ocean of the faithful at the Vatican today was a tricolour, held aloft by a group of Indians.

'Since the Pope had a special place for India in his heart, it was an appropriate gesture,' Father Joyce Kaithakkottil, a priest who is studying at the Vatican, told The Telegraph over the phone from Rome.

The last journey of a man, who travelled the equivalent of 30 times the circumference of the earth during his reign, was his shortest ' a few hundred metres from church to crypt.

Nearly seven hours after the elaborate funeral rites had started, John Paul was laid to rest under the ground in an alcove of the crypt. It was 5.50 pm Indian time.

Five kings, six queens and at least 70 presidents and prime ministers attended the funeral service, paying homage to a Pope who helped bring down the Iron Curtain, urged unity between faiths and stamped a strict orthodoxy on his own church.

But as hundreds of millions watched the funeral on TV across the world, Brussels Cardinal Godfried Danneels, said to be a candidate for the next Pope, said: 'For the first time in history, John Paul II has been really a universal father for the whole world.'

Indians were not just in the crowd. The three cardinals from India ' Varkey Vithayathil, Ivan Dias and Telesphore Toppo ' were at the altar.

'All the 140 cardinals were seated according to seniority, on the left and right of the altar. To my right was the Croatia cardinal and to my left was the Italian cardinal,' said Toppo, speaking from Rome.

If there was a tricolour fluttering in the sea of buntings and banners, there was also a frail Indian in a blue-bordered white sari in the crowd at St Peter's Square as far as the eye could see.

'It was awesome, simply awesome. It was so moving,' said Sister Nirmala, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, overwhelmed by the experience of being present at the funeral. She added: 'There were crowds and crowds of people' there were so many people, I have never seen so many people assembled in one place in my life.'

Father Jose Pollayil, who coordinates the activities of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Rome, said he saw a small group with the Indian flag.

'Several Indians were spread across the huge mass of people. I also saw a Hindu priest and a Sikh in the section meant for representatives from other religions,' said Father Kaithakkottil.

'Santo subito (Make him a saint immediately),' pilgrims chanted in Italian, holding up the open-air funeral Mass several times.

Father Kaithakkottil recalled being struck by the number of youths in the crowd, adding that no other sight would have pleased the Pope more.

'His Holiness often used to tell the youth to open up their hearts. In his last days, when the Pope was told that thousands of youth were praying for him, he had said, 'I searched for you, now you have come searching for me'.'

Sister Nirmala will call the sisters at Mother House in Calcutta soon to share her experience. 'I want to know how they felt. I want to tell them how very moving it was to be present here,' she said.

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