VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II was near death as dawn broke today, his breathing shallow and his heart and kidneys failing, the Vatican said. Millions of faithful around the world paid homage, many weeping as they knelt with bowed heads, others carrying candles in prayer for the 84-year-old pontiff.
The pope “is on the verge of death,” Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Vatican’s health care office, told the Mexican television network Televisa. “I talked to the doctors and they told me there is no more hope.”
Addressing the crowd at St. Peter’s Square, where as many as 70,000 people prayed and stood vigil in the chilly night, Angelo Comastri, the pope’s vicar general for Vatican City, said “This evening or this night, Christ opens the door to the pope,”
At times the huge gathering fell so silent the sound of the square’s trickling fountains was audible. At other points, the crowd sang, “Stay with us!”
As dawn broke over the square, the crowd was considerably diminished, with a group of about 100 faithful continuing their vigil from overnight. They huddled around a message, written with prayer candles placed on the ground, that read “con te,” Italian for “with you.”
In a sign of the pope’s decline, several cardinals said they were heading to Rome, including Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, and William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore. After the official mourning period following the death of a pope, cardinals hold a secret vote in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor.
Around the world, priests readied Roman Catholics for John Paul’s passing. Many expressed hope that his final hours would be peaceful.
“Now he prepares to meet the Lord,” Cardinal Francis George, former bishop of Yakima, said at a Mass in Chicago. “As the portals of death open for him, as they will for each of us … we must accompany him with our own prayers.”
Newspapers in Italy devoted most of today’s editions to the suffering of the Polish pope, whose given name is Karol Wojtyla. Il Tempo showed a photo of the white-clad pontiff with his back turned to the camera, with the headline, “Ciao, Karol.”
The Il Secolo XIX newspaper of Genoa reported that the pope, with the help of his private secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, wrote a note to his aides urging them not to weep for him.
“I am happy, and you should be as well,” the note reportedly said. “Let us pray together with joy.”
The Vatican said Friday morning that John Paul was in “very grave” condition after suffering blood poisoning from a urinary tract infection the previous night, but that he was “fully conscious and extraordinarily serene.” The pope was being treated by the Vatican medical team and declined to be hospitalized.
By Friday night, the pope’s condition had worsened further, and he was suffering from kidney failure and shortness of breath but had not lost consciousness as of 9:30 p.m., the Vatican said.
As word of his condition spread across the globe, special Masses celebrated the pope for transforming the Roman Catholic Church during his 26-year papacy and for his example in fearlessly confronting death.
In Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he had heard from Rome that the pope was “sinking.” McCarrick said he prayed that God will “take him peacefully.”
The White House said President Bush and his wife were praying for the pope and that the world’s concern was “a testimony to his greatness.”
John Paul’s health declined sharply Thursday when he developed a high fever brought on by the infection. The pope suffered septic shock and heart problems during treatment for the infection, the Vatican said.
Septic shock involves both bacteria in the blood and a consequent over-relaxing of the blood vessels. The vessels, which are normally narrow and taut, get floppy in reaction to the bacteria and can’t sustain any pressure. That loss of blood pressure is catastrophic, making the heart work hard to compensate for the collapse.
Even the fittest patients need special care and medicine to survive.
“The chances of an elderly person in this condition with septic shock surviving 24 to 48 hours are slim – about 10-20 percent, but that would be in an intensive care unit with very aggressive treatment,” said Dr. Gianni Angelini, a professor of cardiac surgery at Bristol University in England.