Thousands of Chinese Catholics attended services for Pope John Paul II (search) in Shanghai (search) on Saturday, despite the Chinese government's refusal to forge ties with the Vatican.

"Our pope loved China and loved the Chinese church," Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian said at a memorial mass at Shanghai's St. Ignatius Cathedral, the city's main Catholic Church.

"He hoped the Chinese church would be united and not divided," Jin said, a reference to the split between the state-sanctioned church and unofficial groups that still revere the pope as their leader.

A symbolic funeral bier was laid at the base of the altar, topped with white flowers arranged in the shape of a cross and fronted by a framed photograph of the pontiff. Scores of clergy from the Shanghai diocese were arrayed in white, purple and gold vestments in the choir of the gothic red brick church, built almost 100 years ago by French Jesuits.

Beijing avoided sending an envoy to John Paul's funeral in a spat over the Vatican's relations with China's rival Taiwan (search).

Yet the death of the pope has united China's Catholics in mourning, at least temporarily fading the differences between official and underground churches and fueling hopes that Beijing might ease its rejection of any ties between believers and Rome.

Communist leaders ordered China's Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951 as they reasserted Chinese sovereignty following a century of war and foreign domination.

Churches run by the official China Patriotic Catholic Association, including St. Ignatius, claim 4 million followers. Foreign experts say as many as 12 million more worship in the unofficial churches.

Underscoring China's unease over commemorations of the pope's death, several dozen uniformed and plain clothes officers kept watch outside the cathedral. Plainclothes officers also sat in the pews at a smaller mass for the pope earlier in the morning at the St. Peters church in downtown Shanghai.

In his homily, Jin made no direct reference to the feud between the Vatican and Beijing.

But he said the pope had long desired to visit China, a wish Beijing blocked him from fulfilling.

"Our pope hoped to visit China, but for various reasons was unable to," Jin said. "Both we and the pope regretted this."

The mass, spoken in Chinese and Latin, concluded with three bows toward the alter — the traditional Chinese sign of respect for the dead — as a brass band played funereal music. Many in the pews, largely elderly but with many young people mixed among them, wiped back tears as Jin sprinkled holy water on the pope's portrait a final time.

Despite the somber tone, participants afterward said they rejoiced in the memory of a pope whom many felt had a particular affection for the church in China. Some said they had prayed for a papal successor to visit China.

"He influenced the whole world. If only he could have visited China we would all have been so happy to see him," said Liang Bing, a Shanghai office worker who said his family's Catholic roots go back "many, many generations."

Liang said he thought a new pope might be able to visit, but that it would take time.

"There is going to be a long process involved, but I think it's entirely possible," Liang said.

Retiree Zhang Xiaoming, a third-generation Catholic, said she had been particularly moved by the pope's concern for the poor.

"He was truly a great pope. He helped to make our church stronger and more unified. As a member of the Chinese church, of course I hope to see a pope visit," Zhang said.

Chinese entirely state-controlled media largely ignored news of the pope's funeral, except to carry the Foreign Ministry's complaints to Italy and the Vatican for granting Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian a visa to attend the funeral.

The Vatican is the only European state to have diplomatic relations with self-governing Taiwan, which China claims as a part of its territory.