Polish flags fluttered in the cool evening breeze, the candles twinkled and a choir sang hymns during an hour-long prayer vigil that was to culminate with a blessing by Pope Benedict XVI at the exact time of John Paul's death at 9:37 p.m.
Benedict joined the crowd from his studio window, kneeling in prayer and reciting the rosary along with the faithful.
What the masses looking up really want to hear is a proclamation that the much revered Polish pope is what many of them already believe — he is a saint, reports CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey.
, even though Benedict has put his predecessor on an unprecedented "fast track" to the highest pantheon the Catholic church has for those it considers truly worthy.
City officials said they expected between 100,000 and 150,000 people to attend the vigil, some 10,000 of them from John Paul's native Poland, where anniversary commemorations were also being held Sunday.
One group of Poles from a town near Krakow held aloft a huge red and white banner that read "John Paul the Great Santo Subito" — a reference to the banners that filled St. Peter's Square during the pope's April 8 funeral calling for him to be canonized immediately.
"We have come here to pray that he be 'santo subito,"' said the group's guide, Barbara Sworowska. "He had a big heart open to all. We are happy to have such a great man. It doesn't matter that he is no longer alive. We still feel his presence."
Earlier in the day, Benedict recalled John Paul's final days of suffering, which fell during the church's Holy Week commemorations, when the faithful meditate on the final days of Jesus' life and his resurrection.
Benedict reminded the crowd how John Paul was only able to watch the Good Friday procession retracing Jesus' crucifixion on television, and then could not speak when he tried to deliver his Easter blessing two days later, managing only to bless the crowd weakly with his hand.
"We will never forget that blessing," Benedict said from the same studio window overlooking the square where John Paul made his final public appearance. "It was the most pained and moving blessing, which left us with the utmost evidence of his will to complete his ministry until the end."
During Sunday night's vigil, selections from John Paul's writings — his poetry, books and homilies — were read out to the faithful, interspersed with prayers, Gospel readings and hymns. Benedict's message was to be broadcast via videolink live in Krakow, Poland, where John Paul was archbishop.
Giovanni and Graziela Breda of Rome and their five children aged 4 to 18 were among the faithful, who had staked out spots on the piazza's cobblestones to gaze up at the Apostolic Palace where John Paul died.
"It's a matter of respect to come here to pray for him," Graziela Breda said. "It's a happy day, because he is still with us, sees our needs and desires and what is missing in our lives, and is even closer to us now."
During the noontime prayer, Benedict said John Paul would be remembered for one of his first messages, delivered in St. Peter's on Oct. 22, 1978, days after he was elected pope. During that message, John Paul told the faithful: "Open, indeed, throw open wide the doors to Christ!"
Benedict said that appeal had embodied John Paul's entire, 26-year pontificate — particularly during his many travels.
"In the final years, the Lord gradually stripped him of everything," Benedict said. "And when he could no longer travel, and then could no longer walk, and finally could no longer speak, his announcement was reduced to the essential: the gift of himself until the very end."
In recent days, pilgrims have been lining up to visit John Paul's grave in a grotto underneath the basilica to pray and leave notes and flowers.
Souvenir shops around the Vatican, which over the past year have given equal space to Benedict and John Paul, by Sunday had reverted to the time of John Paul's pontificate, with storefronts filled exclusively with John Paul key chains, calendars and snow globes.
On Monday, Benedict is to celebrate a Mass in the square attended by John Paul's longtime private secretary, the newly elevated Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, now Krakow archbishop. The Vatican's final anniversary event is scheduled for Thursday afternoon in St. Peter's Square, dedicated to the young people who were so important to John Paul.