VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II suffered heart failure during treatment for a urinary tract infection and was in “very serious” condition today, the Vatican said.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement that the pope, who was being treated at the Vatican, was given cardio-respiratory assistance after his heart stopped Thursday afternoon.
“This morning the condition of the Holy Father is very serious,” the statement said.
However, it said that the pope had participated in a 6 a.m. Mass today and that the pope was “conscious, lucid, and serene.”
The pontiff’s health declined sharply after he developed a high fever Thursday brought on by the infection. His wish to remain at the Vatican was respected, Navarro-Valls said.
The pontiff was attended to by the Vatican medical team, and provided with “all the appropriate therapeutic provisions and cardio-respiratory assistance,” the statement said.
The statement confirmed previous reports that the pope had received the sacrament for the sick and dying on Thursday evening.
At the edge of St. Peter’s Square, hundreds of people gathered early today, concerned about the fragile pope. A few knelt on the cobblestones to pray, others wrapped blankets around themselves as they kept vigil through the night.
“There’s nothing we can do but pray. We’re all upset,” said Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno, who was in the crowd.
Formerly called the last rites, the sacrament is often misunderstood as signaling imminent death. It is performed, however, not only for patients at the point of death, but also for those who are very sick – and it may be repeated.
The Rome daily La Repubblica reported Friday that the sacrament was administered by John Paul’s closest aide, Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who serves as his private secretary. Dziwisz had given the pontiff the same sacrament on Feb. 24 just before the pope underwent a tracheotomy to insert a tube in his throat at Gemelli Polyclinic, the newspaper said.
According to its account, John Paul had attended Mass Thursday morning in his private chapel, then did paperwork from an armchair. Abruptly, at 6:45 p.m., John Paul turned ghostly pale and his blood pressure plummeted, the newspaper said.
After antibiotics were administered, the Italian news agency Apcom reported without citing any sources, John Paul’s condition was “stable.” ANSA, another Italian news agency, said the pope “seems to showing a first positive reaction” to antibiotic therapy.
At the Gemelli hospital, an emergency room chief said there were no plans to admit John Paul “at the moment,” ANSA reported.
While the pope’s condition deteriorated suddenly, the Vatican medical staff appeared confident it could handle the crisis with the sophisticated medical equipment installed for the pontiff.
As the crowd gathered to keep vigil near the pope, police kept them off St. Peter’s Square, forcing them to congregate at the edges of the giant plaza.
“I was in the car and I heard on the radio about the grave condition of the pope. I immediately thought I would come to St. Peter’s,” said Antonio Ceresa, a Roman.
As news of the pope’s latest health crisis swept the world, Navarro-Valls told the Associated Press by telephone that “the Holy Father today was struck by a high fever caused by a confirmed infection of the urinary tract.”
The pontiff was started on “an appropriate” course of antibiotics, Navarro-Valls said. “The medical situation is being strictly controlled by the Vatican medical team that is taking care of him.”
Lights in the papal apartment above St. Peter’s Square were on until about 11 p.m. Thursday, generally well past the papal bedtime. The light remained on in the Apostolic Palace’s nursing station on the same floor as the pope’s apartment.
A urinary infection can produce fever and a drop in blood pressure as reported in the pope, said Dr. Marc Siegel, a specialist at the New York University Medical Center.
The pope’s risk of such an infection is heightened because of his age – which suggests his prostate is probably enlarged – and because he is debilitated and run down from the illness that recently sent him to the hospital, Siegel said.
Urinary infections tend to respond well to antibiotics, and “I would suspect there’s a very good chance he’s going to recover well,” Siegel said.
Other physicians offered far more guarded assessment.
“His body has come to a standstill,” said Dr. Zab Mosenifar, who treats elderly patients at the intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Usually, these people go in a downhill course.”