The Digital Journalist
Burial of the Pope, from the gallery

by Mario Tama

We barely had time to unpack when word came in Rome that the Pope's body would be transferred from the Vatican through the masses of faithful gathered in Saint Peter's Square. Scrambling to throw on our rumpled black suits, Joe Raedle and I did our best to appear presentable after no sleep on the overnight flight from Newark. We loaded up our gear and prepared to do battle with the throngs lined up on Via Della Conciliazione. Carrying a 600mm lens along with usual gear is never fun but attempting to haul said cargo through a mass of emotional Italians (is there any other kind?) is an entirely different matter. After countless "scuzis" and "pregos" and a few banged skulls we made our way to the relative tranquility of an area designated for the press on the edge of the square.

Soon the crowd hushed as giant monitors played a TV feed of the Pope's body being carried from the Apostolic Palace through the rarely seen inner sanctum of the Vatican toward the square as a solemn hymn echoed down from loudspeakers. Pallbearers hoisted his body through the hallways and into the piazza in a ritual that felt bizarrely medieval yet modern at the same time. Thousands of faithful applauded (an Italian gesture of respect for the dead) while hundreds held tiny digital cameras overhead, snapping photos as the Pope's body, dressed in a crimson robe and white bishop's miter, passed by. The pallbearers paused at the top of the stairs before entering the basilica and slowly turned the Pope's body to face the crowd in the square one last time. Many of the best images were made from positions high above, from the top of the square's colonnade, while other snappers sneaked through the crowd of mourners, in an attempt to get a more personal view.

VATICAN CITY, - APRIL 5: The body of Pope John Paul II lies in state in Saint Peter's Basilica.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Pope's body lay in state for the next four days, inside majestic Saint Peter's Basilica, as over a million mourners from around the world descended on the city. The queue of faithful quickly distended from the Grand Via and spilled like a flood onto the narrow side streets of the Borgo neighborhood where our team of seven shooters and three editors/technicians were based. The wait to view the Pope's body became a 12-hour mini-pilgrimage of its own as the faithful patiently (for the most part) wound their way through Borgo's medieval streets towards the square just as pilgrims have done for centuries. The street in front of our building was jampacked with pilgrims and for two days entering and exiting the building became something of a Sisyphean task. Little sleep was to be had as pilgrims in the street sang hymns throughout the night just below our windows.

Shooters were allowed access to the Pope's body with rotations arranged twice a day, that is, if they could make it through the gauntlet of pilgrims, barricades and fickle Italian police to the location where the pool gathered by the square. We were hustled into the Basilica through a side entrance and given around 20 minutes from a platform about 30 meters from the body as mourners filed past. The massive basilica, designed by Bramante and Michelangelo, was nearly silent save for the sounds of shuffling feet and the unfortunate clacking of our shutters as priests, nuns, pilgrims and tourists paid their respects.

ROME - APRIL 7: A picture of Pope John Paul II is held as the final group of people line up to view the body of Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter's Basilica.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
The night before the funeral police shut off the queue as the final group of mourners made their way into the square. The sun set behind the basilica over waving Polish flags as the sounds of Christian hymns cascaded through the piazza. The crowd appeared more curious than mournful and a gregarious Polish man, seeing me vainly attempting a Hail Mary image of the crowd, benevolently hoisted me up on his shoulders to get the shot just as dusk settled in.

The funeral for the spiritual guide to more than 1 billion Christians, attended by over one hundred heads of state, was set for Friday morning. Walking towards the square before dawn, thousands of pilgrims were already lined up on Via Della Conciliazione while hundreds more camped out in sleeping bags along the route. Around the colonnade pilgrims slept between columns, in stairwells and even on the pews of a nearby church. Speculation was rampant that the pilgrims would not be allowed into the square due to the massive security concerns, but by 8 am the crowd began to trickle in.

Amazingly, metal detectors appeared not to be in use, surely raising a few hairs on the necks of the Secret Service. Hundred of photographers lined the colonnade overlooking the square while others simply filed into the square unchecked along with the faithful. The crowd seemed more curious than mournful and was almost festive at times with flags from dozens of countries being waved throughout the square.

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - APRIL 19: Seminary students celebrate after white smoke rose announcing a newly elected Pope.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Next came the enigmatic conclave, with shooters parked in the square and lenses trained on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. Smoke came Monday evening and Tuesday morning, both times initially appearing white, then flowing black, causing confusion in the crowd with sporadic shrieks of joy as photographers scrambled to capture the commotion. On Tuesday afternoon the smoke slowly poured from the chimney in white, then gray, then white again. Some Christians celebrated while others watched more dubiously. Finally the bells rang out from the basilica, confirming for all that a new Pope had been chosen. The crowd erupted and I photographed a raucous group of seminary students (aren't they all) cheering and screaming like delirious frat boys at a football game.

Bells began to toll out throughout the city as waves of Romans and tourists headed for the square. About forty minutes later Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez of Chile heralded the traditional Latin phrase "Habemus papam" to the masses. Shortly thereafter Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now forever known as Pope Benedict XVI, strode out onto a curtain-draped balcony above the piazza as photographers around the plaza trained their 600s and even 1200s on the 265th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. After greeting and blessing the crowd and the world, Ratzinger left the balcony. In or out of our view, John Paul's shoes will be difficult to fill.

© Mario Tama

Mario Tama studied photojournalism at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a BFA in 1993. He began shooting for the daily Journal Newspapers in suburban Washington, DC, from 1994-1998. From 1998-2001 he freelanced in Washington for The Washington Post and Agence France-Presse. In July, 2001, Mario joined Getty Images New York and has covered September 11th, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, among other global events.

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