.- As the onslaught of pilgrims continues to descend on Rome, the city is simultaneously preparing for the arrival of some 200 heads of state and numerous world dignitaries coming to pay their last respects at Pope John Paul II’s Friday funeral Mass. Among them will be President George W. Bush, accompanied by his wife Laura, who will lead an official delegation of five from the U.S.
“Laura and I are looking forward to leading a delegation to honor the Holy Father,” the president said at a recent news conference.
Although not on the official funeral guest list, many U.S. senators are also planning a trip to Rome to pay their last respects to the pope. The group, led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn), will join over 2 million other pilgrims to say farewell to the pontiff.
The number of dignitaries is unprecedented in recent years for a papal funeral.
Not a single president attended the funeral of John Paul II’s predecessor, John Paul I, and only three heads of state were present at the burial of Pope Paul VI in 1978.
Although most countries only sent ambassadors or other representatives in latter years, Rome will become the center of the world on Friday, as the body of the Polish-born Holy Father is laid to rest in a crypt underneath St. Peter’s Basilica.
Religious leaders from around the world will also be present for the funeral including heads of the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, respectively; the Armenian Apostolic Church, two major Jewish groups and some 17 delegations from other Christian denominations.
Many credit the world attention to the pope’s extensive travel. John Paul was said to have been seen in person by more people than any other human being in history.