ROME - The world's Catholics looked to the College of Cardinals to begin the difficult task of choosing a worthy successor to John Paul II, while hundreds of thousands of weary pilgrims who flooded Rome for the pontiff's funeral began their journeys home on Saturday.
The 130 cardinals preparing for the ritual-filled secret conclave that begins April 18 unanimously agreed Saturday to stop talking in public, banning interviews with the media as they seek to ensure the centuries-old process is safe in an age of media leaks and cell phones.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls also said the number of cardinals who will vote for a new pope was down to 115 because two prelates were too ill to attend: Cardinal Jaime L. Sin of the Philippines and Cardinal Alfonso Antonio Suarez Rivera of Mexico. The conclave is limited to the 117 cardinals under the age of 80.
Pilgrims began a massive exodus, carrying backpacks, folded flags and rolled-up sleeping bags and headed for train stations or parking lots on the outskirts of the city. Rome officials estimated that most would be gone by the end of Saturday.
Police cleared out St. Peter's Square late Friday and blocked it with metal barricades, breaking up groups of Poles who stood in a circle in the drizzle, praying under their umbrellas.
"We hope that the new pope will continue the work that John Paul set up," said Monica Barthicka, 23, a student from Warsaw.
Mateusz Rozycki, 25, an accountant also from John Paul's homeland, drove to Rome in 20 hours for Friday's elaborate funeral, one of the largest the world has ever witnessed.
"People in Poland, and maybe elsewhere, changed a little bit because of him. If some of those thoughts remain in our hearts for a little while, I will be satisfied," Rozycki said.
Rome's Mayor Walter Veltroni said the flood of pilgrims over the past week had doubled the size of his city's normal population of 2.6 million - a figure that is less than earlier police estimates of 4 million. The turnout was comparable to the vast crowds that gathered to mourn Mohandas Gandhi of India, Mao Zedong of China and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran.
John Paul's funeral also was one of the most prestigious, drawing presidents, kings and religious leaders from all corners of the globe, including President Bush and his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
Italy's Minister of the Interior, Giuseppe Pisanu, said 1.4 million managed to file past the pope's body during the four days he lay in state, after waiting in line for an average 13 hours. Giving a slightly conflicting figure, Veltroni put the number at 1.3 million. The numbers were the most authoritative yet.
On Friday, 250,000 filled St. Peter's Square for the funeral, Pisanu said. Others watched on 24 giant video screens set up around Rome, from university campuses to the Circus Maximus where ancient Romans held chariot races centuries before Christianity was born.
John Paul was laid to rest in the Vatican grottoes, the cramped, narrow passageways below the existing basilica and above the one built by the emperor Constantine. The grottoes hold the remains of popes of centuries past, including the tomb traditionally believed to be that of the apostle Peter, the first pope.
Navarro-Valls said the Vatican the grottoes would reopen to the public on Monday. Keeping them closed over the weekend was a way of clearing the city of the huge throngs of pilgrims.
The College of Cardinals begins its conclave on April 18 to elect a successor, a papal election with new rules and new technologies.
Italian news media have reported that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, had argued for the ban on interviews.
Navarro-Valls said only that all the cardinals approved it, saying they considered it an "act of responsibility" to remain silent. He presented it as a "request" by the cardinals to the media not to ask for interviews.
The cardinals took an oath of secrecy about their deliberations on April 4 at their first preparatory meeting, two days after the pope died at the age of 84, but it did not preclude them from giving interviews.
Anyone who breaks the sacred oath of secrecy during a conclave faces excommunication according to detailed guidelines set out by John Paul in 1996 to ensure the centuries-old process is safe in an age of media leaks and cell phones.
Their challenge will be to find a successor who can measure up to John Paul, whose popularity was undimmed by his conservatism and who helped the church spread in Africa and Asia. He made unprecedented strides in opening contacts with other Christian denominations, Jews and Muslims. He made the first papal visit to a mosque - during a visit to Syria in 2001, and sought forgiveness for Jewish suffering at the hands of Catholics.
His efforts were evident at his funeral, attended by dignitaries from 138 countries. Their diversity reflected the extraordinary mix of faiths and cultures that John Paul courted during his 26-year papacy: Orthodox bishops in long black robes, Jews in yarmulkes, Arabs in checkered headscarves, Central Asians in lambskin caps and Western political leaders in dark suits.
Across Africa, Asia and the Americas, church bells tolled and millions of people gathered in open fields, sports stadiums, town squares and cathedrals to watch the funeral on giant screens. Millions more mourned privately at home.
In a gesture the pope would certainly have applauded, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he shook hands and chatted briefly with the leaders of his country's archenemies, Syria and Iran. The Israeli president said his handshake with Syrian President Bashar Assad came at the point in the service when members of the congregation "exchange the peace."