VATICAN CITY — Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday chose April 18 as the start of their conclave to select a successor to Pope John Paul II, while the massive crush of pilgrims seeking to glimpse the pontiff's body forced authorities to shut down access to St. Peter's Basilica.
The first of more than 200 dignitaries began arriving for Friday's funeral: President Bush was whisked late Wednesday into the church, where he and other members of the American delegation knelt and prayed before the pope, who died Saturday and has been lying in state since Monday.
The cardinals, in their third day of closed-door meetings during this interregnum, also heard the pope's will read. Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described it as a spiritual document of 15 pages. John Paul had very few material possessions to bequeath, and most are believed to be destined for the small inner circle of Polish nuns and priests who attended him much of his life.
Written in Polish in installments starting in 1979, John Paul's testament will be made public today. It did not reveal the name of the cardinal whom the pope inducted in secret in 2003, meaning that the secret and the nomination have died with the pontiff.
The pope's death has brought millions of mourners to Rome, and the streets are awash in litter and chaos. The lines of pilgrims have surged across the bridges that span the Tiber River, up the cobblestone streets of the neighborhood surrounding the Vatican, and into St. Peter's Square.
At the rate of up to 18,000 an hour, police said, more than a million people have shuffled through the basilica to view the body of the pope, many waiting in line for more than 10 hours.
Police said 4 million people had descended on the area since the pope's death, and the funeral is shaping up to be the largest event in Vatican history.
At 10 p.m. Wednesday, city authorities declared that people at the end of the line were in for a 24-hour wait. With that, they closed the line and said no additional pilgrims would be permitted to join the queue.
The 108-acre Vatican City, the world's smallest country, is straining to cope with the crush of humanity. Eight-hundred people have been given emergency medical treatment in first-aid tents, the Red Cross said. Most had fainted.
The Italian army was called on to lend support to about 20,000 paramilitary police, security guards and civil defense workers, and authorities begged Italian citizens to stay away so as not to swell the throngs of foreigners.
NATO fighter planes are scheduled to be deployed to patrol skies that will be closed to other air traffic, and anti-aircraft missile batteries have been set up on the outskirts of Rome. Authorities are planning to restrict traffic Friday, and businesses have been urged to close.
Far from the crowds, in the hushed recesses of the Vatican's marble palaces, 116 cardinals agreed to begin their secret deliberations to choose a new pope on April 18. The conclave will take place in the Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo's "Last Judgment," and could last a day or as long as two weeks.
There are a total of 183 cardinals, but only the 117 younger than 80 are eligible to vote. One of the 117, Jaime Sin of the Philippines is not expected to attend because of poor health. He is one of only three cardinals of voting age who wasn't appointed by John Paul.
On the morning of April 18, the cardinals will celebrate a special Mass for the election of the pope, and in the afternoon they will enter the first round of the conclave. A vote can be taken then or the next morning. Church law states that subsequent ballots will be held every morning and afternoon.
If no one emerges with a two-thirds majority after about two weeks, the cardinals can agree to choose the new pope by a simple majority.
To a man, the cardinals say they are humbled by the enormous responsibility that confronts them.
Between the funeral and the start of the conclave, the period of official mourning will continue and cardinals will be immersed in "quiet reflection," Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Britain said Wednesday.
Noting that cardinals can be found praying beside the pope's body at nearly every moment, Murphy-O'Connor said sadness is mixed with a sense of history.
"There is also a sense of completion," he told a group of reporters. "It was time that this pope go to his reward. We mourn, we pray, but we believe that the church will continue, and now we have a task to fulfill so that the church does continue."
With authorities here on high alert, and helicopters periodically sweeping the skies, the U.S. delegation became the first group of foreign dignitaries to arrive for the funeral.