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Tens of thousands visit the Vatican to pay respects to former Pope Benedict XVI

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tens of thousands of people filed through St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican today, where the body of former Pope Benedict XVI is lying in state. The public viewing will last through Wednesday, and Benedict's successor, Pope Francis, will preside over the funeral on Thursday. From Rome, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The procession of both mourners and tourists moved steadily and quietly along the central nave of the basilica. Security was very tight, with visitors going through several checkpoints and metal detectors before entering the basilica. The bier stood at the end of the nave, at the foot of the ornate bronze baldachin designed by the Baroque master Bernini. Benedict's body was dressed in red and gold vestments. His head rested on crimson pillows. Two Swiss guards stood at attention on either side. Given Benedict's status as a former pope, there was no papal insignia surrounding the body.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: The silence of the basilica was periodically broken with prayers and readings from the gospel, and ushers moved visitors at a steady clip. In the first day of viewing, Vatican police said 65,000 people had filed past the body.

Outside in St. Peter's Square, the mood was not somber but festive. Families with children took pictures around the creche and Christmas tree. And Ines Balaloni, visiting from Argentina, had a serene look on her face.

INES BALALONI: Very good. I will say marvelous. It's a nice visit.

POGGIOLI: Elisabetta Vargiu, who comes from the Italian island of Sardinia, did not go into the basilica because she said the lines were too long. But she, too, was very impressed by the occasion.

ELISABETTA VARGIU: I think that it's a great event, OK? And I think that people going into the church are very close to the pope, to the region and to their faith.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican has said that the former pope, in accordance with his wishes, will be buried in the crypt under St. Peter's Basilica, where other popes are buried. Not all details of the funeral mass have been revealed. All that's known is that only two delegations have been invited - Italy and Benedict's homeland, Germany - and that the ritual will be solemn and simple.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.