By VICTOR L. SIMPSON
Associated Press Writer
VATICAN CITY - The body of Pope John Paul II was borne solemnly into St. Peter's Basilica for public viewing today, four days before being entombed in the grotto below, where pontiffs throughout the ages have been laid to rest.
Applause rose from the tens of thousands of mourners in St. Peter's Square as 12 pallbearers, flanked by Swiss Guards in red-plumed helmets, carried the body on a crimson platform through the Bronze Door into the piazza.
Many more pilgrims were converging on Rome for the funeral, set for Friday by the College of Cardinals, which held two meetings in its first gatherings ahead of a secret vote later this month to elect a successor to John Paul.
The funeral is expected to draw up to 2 million people, including heads of state such as President Bush and his wife, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Prince Charles, who delayed his wedding a day to attend.
The procession, to the backdrop of priests chanting the Litany of the Saints, began at the Sala Clementina in the Apostolic Palace, where John Paul had lain in state since Sunday.
Televised by Vatican TV, it moved slowly through the frescoed halls, giving the general public a rare view of the inner sanctums of the Vatican.
Before the procession, the camerlengo responsible for running church affairs following the pope's death Saturday, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, said prayers and blessed the body with holy water, as chanting echoed off the walls of the ornate Vatican hall.
Video images of the procession were shown on giant screens in the square and on the main avenue leading to the basilica, where more than 100,000 pilgrims, mourners and tourists solemnly watched.
At least 60 members of the College of Cardinals, the red-capped princes of the church, accompanied the procession, along with bishops and other prelates.
Emerging through the Bronze Door, the procession moved across St. Peter's Square toward the basilica's central doors to applause, an Italian gesture of respect. The pallbearers paused at the top of the stairs and turned the pope's body to face the crowd briefly before entering.
Martinez presided over a prayer service in Latin before the public viewing.
At 2 p.m., police estimated the crowd stood at 100,000 waiting to get its last glimpse of John Paul in the basilica designed by Bramante and Michelanglo and dedicated in 1626. It was built on the site where St. Peter, the first pope, is believed to have been buried.
''It's extraordinary. It happens once in a lifetime,'' said Uwe Kunzmann, a civil engineer from Karlsruhe, Germany. ''We want to be in the crowd.''
Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said John Paul would ''almost surely'' be buried in the tomb where Pope John XXIII lay before he was brought up onto the main floor of the basilica. John XXIII, who died in 1963, was moved after his 2000 beatification because so many pilgrims wanted to visit his tomb, and the grotto is in a cramped underground space.
In the first meeting today, the cardinals took an oath of secrecy, as called for in the Vatican document outlining the procedures following the death of a pope. In the second one, they made their decisions on the funeral rites, Navarro-Valls said. There were 65 cardinals attending.
There had been speculation that the pope might have left orders to be buried in his native Poland, but Navarro-Valls said John Paul ''did not show any such wish.''
Poles have hoped the heart of the pope - the first non-Italian pope in 455 years - might be placed in Wavel Cathedral in Krakow, where Polish saints and royalty are buried. Asked if this was ruled out by burial in St. Peter's, Navarro-Valls did not directly reply, saying he was merely transmitting information on decisions taken by the cardinals Monday.
The Rev. Eduard Berezowski, who was bringing 50 pilgrims from Gdansk, Poland, for the funeral, said he saw no problems with the burial in St. Peter's.
''It's only right. He was the bishop of Rome,'' he said.
Under Vatican tradition, Friday is the latest the funeral could have been held. John Paul will be buried immediately after the 10 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT) service, Navarro-Valls said.
''It will be a moment without precedent,'' Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni told Repubblica Radio today. ''Rome will grind to a halt to guarantee the full development of the demonstration of love for the pontificate, guaranteeing the maximum security for all the heads of state who will arrive to pay homage to the pope.''
The meeting at the Bologna Hall of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace was the first gathering of the world's Roman Catholic cardinals since the pontiff's death. After taking the oath, they were to open any final documents he have prepared for them.
Navarro-Valls made no mention of a date for the papal election, or conclave, implying that no such decision had been made. By church law, the conclave must take place within two weeks of the burial. Another meeting was scheduled for Tuesday.
To accommodate the thousands of faithful expected for the public viewing this week, the basilica will remain open except for three hours overnight for cleaning, Navarro-Valls said.
On Sunday, John Paul lay in state in the Apostolic Palace, dressed in crimson vestments and a white bishop's miter, his head resting on a stack of gold pillows. A rosary was wound around his hands and a staff was tucked under his left forearm. A Swiss Guard stood on either side as diplomats, politicians and clergy paid their respects at his feet.
Rome is bracing for a crush of mourners expected to pay tribute to the pope who reigned firmly over his flock for 26 years with unbending loyalty to its ancient precepts, resisting calls from modernizers for the church to adapt.
A massive campsite is being set up on the outskirts of the city to house pilgrims, and city hall has increased the number of bus runs and prepared bus shuttles to and from the capital's two main railway stations.
In St. Peter's Square today, lamp posts were covered with impromptu memorials, including flowers, icons, and handwritten messages and children's drawings pinned up with multicolored candle wax.
''Even if we fear we've lost a point of reference, I feel like everybody in this square is united with him in a hug,'' said Luca Ghizzardi, a 38-year-old nurse among the throng, with a sleeping bag and a handmade peace flag at his feet.
The pope died of septic shock and cardio-circulatory collapse, but had been struggling with declining health for many years. He was 84.
As they begin preparatory meetings, the cardinals quietly will be sizing up one another for the task of electing the 265th successor to the first pope, St. Peter.
John Paul was 58 when the cardinals elected him in 1978. He appointed all but three of the 117 cardinals entitled to attend the secret conclave electing the new pope, but there is no guarantee that his legacy of conservatism will continue into the new reign.
John Paul opposed divorce, birth control and abortion, the ordination of women and the lifting of the celibacy requirement for priests, issues that sharply divided the church.