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FINAL ACT

Drama of funeral reflects pontiff's wishes, themes

VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II had a passion for theater since he was an actor as a young man, and yesterday he starred in a final performance that he choreographed himself to express the themes of an epic papacy -- peace, interfaith understanding, and reaching out to the world.

His wooden casket appeared through the crimson velvet curtain that covered the Bronze Door of St. Peter's Basilica. Borne on the shoulders of 12 white-gloved pallbearers, his body lay before an altar covered in white linen on the steps of the seat of the Holy See.

The cast included the clerical hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, 164 cardinals donning their signature red vestments and red zucchetti, or skull caps, and more than 300 bishops in a sea of flowing, magenta robes, known at the Vatican as ''the purple."

Two hundred world leaders also took part, clad in costumes of power -- the black business suits of three American presidents and a score of European prime ministers, the flowing Arab robes and head scarves of the Persian Gulf kings and Saudi princes, and the colorful headdresses of more than a dozen African leaders.

A scene for the ages occurred in the Catholic Mass, as congregants, in this case the world's most powerful politicians and its most prominent religious leaders, were invited to shake hands and, as the liturgy repeated in churches every Sunday goes, ''offer each other the sign of peace."

The Vatican had positioned the Israeli delegation's seats near the Iranians and the Syrians. In the spirit of the Mass, at one point the president of Israel reached out and shook hands with the leaders of Iran and Syria, longtime enemies of Israel, and the accrued hatred and suspicion broke down, even if for a moment.

The United Kingdom's Prince Charles shook hands with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, a Catholic who because of human-rights violations is banned from traveling in the European Union. Mugabe came because the Vatican is its own city-state. Members of parliament at home later chastised Charles for his gesture.

President Bush shook hands with President Jacques Chirac of France, putting aside friction in trans-Atlantic relations. Bush also leaned back and shook the hand of Turkey's prime minister.

Seated on the broad steps of the basilica like an orchestra at the foot of the stage were religious leaders from all three monotheistic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- as well as Hindu, Buddhist, and leaders of other religions from all over the world.

Rabbis and Muslim clerics mingled and chatted. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, became the first leader of the Anglican Church to attend a pope's funeral in nearly 500 years. There were Eastern Orthodox patriarchs and representatives, their presence embodying the pope's abiding hope to end the 1,000-year-old schism between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

The audience was extraordinary: 300,000 mourners at the service, who came on 24-hour bus rides from Poland, who sold possessions to fly from Mexico, who slept all night in the square to be present to cheer the life of one of the most extraordinary figures of the 20th century; and millions more in the streets of Rome, and hundreds of millions beyond them who watched on television.

They loved the performance. They gave the pope resounding applause, at one point interrupting the Mass for five minutes. In his homily, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described the cinematic sweep of the pope's life through so many turning points of the 20th century and noted that ''as a young student Karol was thrilled by poetry and the theater," and said that love became ''an essential part of his pastoral mission."

Long before he was John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla was a 22-year-old amateur actor studying in an underground seminary and hiding his religious beliefs from the Nazi occupiers in Poland.

John Paul's love of drama continued in planning for his death. In 1996, he wrote two volumes outlining the details of his funeral and burial to convey his belief in interfaith dialogue and his love of the ritual of the Catholic Mass.

Gilbert Levine, 57, an American conductor and a Jew, built a deep friendship with the pope. ''He was a revolutionary and a traditionalist all at the same time, and the funeral was a performance that was an amalgam that captured the complexity of the man," Levine said.


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