VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II died Saturday night, ending a long struggle against a host of debilitating ailments and a globetrotting reign that made him one of the towering figures of his time. He was 84.
The Polish prelate who led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years succumbed in his apartment in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace at 9:37 p.m., papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced.
Weakened for more than a decade by Parkinson’s disease, the pope was overcome by fever, infections and heart and kidney failure last week after two hospitalizations in as many months. He slipped in and out of consciousness Saturday, surrounded by five Polish priests and bishops and four Polish nuns who had looked after him for years.
The Vatican gave no precise cause of death.
“Our holy father John Paul has returned to the house of the father,” Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican undersecretary of state, told 60,000 people standing vigil in St. Peter’s Square below the pope’s still lighted third-floor apartment windows. The crowd fell into stunned and tearful silence, then into applause – an Italian sign of respect. “We all feel like orphans this evening,” Sandri said.
Bells tolled in mourning across Rome and condolences poured in from around the world. President Bush said, “The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd, the world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home.”
The Vatican scheduled a memorial Mass outside St. Peter’s Basilica today and said the pope’s body would be taken into the vast church no earlier than Monday. The College of Cardinals, comprising the church’s red-robed “princes,” is to meet Monday to set a funeral date.
Most popes in recent centuries have asked to be buried in the crypts below the basilica, but the Vatican declined to say whether the pope had left instructions. Some have suggested that the first Polish-born pope might have chosen to be laid to rest in his native country.
John Paul’s death ended the third-longest papacy in the church’s 2,000-year history. Knowing it was near, cardinals from around the world had already begun converging on Rome. By tradition, they are to gather at the Vatican within 20 days for a secret conclave to choose his successor, almost certainly from among their own ranks.
The election is likely to be contentious. John Paul’s pivotal role in toppling communism in Eastern Europe, his humanist evangelizing and his outreach to other faiths made him visible and enormously popular across the world. But his deeply conservative stamp on the church, his intolerance of dissent on Catholic doctrine and his determination to centralize authority in the Vatican left his flock divided.
But the agony of John Paul’s decline and mourning for his death seemed to unite his unruly flock. As the death bulletin spread, St. Peter’s Square filled quickly. The crowd was hushed, many people red-eyed or weeping openly. Parents pushed strollers and carried children on their shoulders.
“My heart is so full, to be here … at the hour of the pope’s death, the death of this great man,” said Frank Rossitto, a retired university professor who lives in Rome. “How many times over the years I stood in this place to watch him celebrate a Mass, for Christmas, for Easter. Now there is such a void.”
Karol Joseph Wojtyla was a robust 58 when the last papal conclave surprised the world in 1978 and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He soon became the most traveled pope in history.
By the turn of the millennium, John Paul had become a picture of frailty. He had survived a 1981 assassination attempt, when a Turkish gunmen shot him in the abdomen, and various hip and knee ailments. In his final years, he used his declining health as a public testament to the value of life and the redemptive possibilities of death.
Pale and gaunt, he appeared briefly at his window Wednesday, the day doctors inserted a feeding tube into his nose. It was the last time he was seen in public.
On Thursday, the Vatican said, a urinary tract infection triggered septic shock – a bacterial invasion and over-relaxing of the blood vessels that caused the pope’s blood pressure to sink and his heart and kidneys to fail.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of several senior Vatican aides summoned to the pope’s bedside Friday, said John Paul “gave me the final farewell.” Navarro-Valls, the papal spokesman, said the bedridden pope managed to utter a few words to an aide Friday evening, apparently referring to the young Catholics who were in the huge crowd praying below his window. “I have looked for you,” he quoted the pope as saying. “Now you have come to me. And I thank you.”
John Paul began to lose consciousness at dawn Saturday and did not take part in a morning Mass said in his presence, the spokesman said. But he occasionally opened his eyes when spoken to. For the third time since his surgery in February, the pope was given the Catholic sacrament commonly known as last rites.