- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

VATICAN CITY — John Paul II, who led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years and helped topple communism in Europe while becoming the most-traveled pope, died Saturday night in his Vatican apartment after a long public struggle against debilitating illness. He was 84.

“We all feel like orphans this evening,” Undersecretary of State Archbishop Leonardo Sandri told the crowd of 70,000 that had gathered in St. Peter’s Square below the pope’s still-lighted apartment windows.

In Washington, President Bush mourned the loss of “a good and faithful servant of God (who) has been called home” and said the pontiff “launched a democratic revolution that swept Eastern Europe and changed the course of history.”

The assembled flock fell into a stunned silence before some people broke out in applause - an Italian tradition in which mourners often clap for important figures. Others wept.

As John Paul’s death neared, members of the College of Cardinals, the red-robed “princes” of the Roman Catholic Church, headed toward the Vatican to prepare for the secret duty of locking themselves in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope.

Outside the Vatican, the crowd of faithful appeared to grow quickly and recited the rosary. A seminarian slowly waved a large red and white Polish flag draped with a black band of mourning for the Polish-born pontiff.

Prelates asked those in the square to keep silent so they might “accompany the pope in his first steps into heaven.”

As bells tolled in mourning, a group of young people sang, “Alleluia, he will rise again,” while one of them strummed a guitar. Later, pilgrims joined in singing the “Ave Maria.”

“The angels welcome you,” Vatican TV said after papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced the death of the pope, who had for years suffered from Parkinson’s disease and came down with fever and infections in recent weeks.

A Mass was scheduled for St. Peter’s Square for 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. EDT) Sunday.

In contrast to the church’s ancient traditions, Navarro-Valls announced the death in an e-mail to journalists: “The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. (2:37 p.m. EST) in his private apartment.” The spokesman said church officials were following instructions that John Paul had written for them on Feb. 22, 1996.

“He was a marvelous man. Now he’s no longer suffering,” Concetta Sposato, a pilgrim who heard the pope had died as she was on her way to St. Peter’s to pray, said tearfully.

“My father died last year. For me, it feels the same,” said Elisabetta Pomacalca, a 25-year-old Peruvian who lives in Rome.

“I’m Polish. For us, he was a father,” said pilgrim Beata Sowa.

John Paul’s Polish roots nourished a doctrinal conservatism - opposition to contraception, abortion, women priests - that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and western Europe.

The 264th pope battled what he called a “culture of death” in modern society. It made him a hero to those who saw him as their rock in a degenerating world, and a foe to those who felt he was holding back social enlightenment.

“The church cannot be an association of freethinkers,” John Paul said.

However, a sex abuse scandal among clergy plunged his church into moral crisis. He summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican and told them: “The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God.” Critics accused the pope of not acting swiftly enough.

Other critics said that while the pope championed the world’s poor, he was not consistent when he rebuked Latin American priests who sought to involve the church politically through the doctrine of “liberation theology.”

John Paul declined rapidly after suffering heart and kidney failure following two hospitalizations in as many months. Just two hours before announcing his death, the Vatican had said he was in “very serious” condition, although he was responding to aides.

Since his surprise election in 1978, John Paul traveled the world, inspiring a revolt against communism in his native Poland and across the Soviet bloc, but also preaching against consumerism, contraception and abortion.

John Paul was a robust 58 when the cardinals stunned the world and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

In his later years, however, John Paul was the picture of frailty. Although he kept up his travels, he was no longer able to kiss the ground.

Vatican, Italian and European Union flags were lowered to half-staff. In Washington, flags over the White House also were lowered.

People in John Paul II’s hometown in Wadowice, Poland, fell to their knees and wept as the news reached them at the end of a special Mass in the church where he worshipped as a boy.

Church bells rang out after the announcement from the Vatican, but it took several minutes for people inside the packed church to find out as they continued their vigil into a second night.

Then parish priest, the Rev. Jakub Gil, came to the front as the last hymn faded away. “His life has come to an end. Our great countryman has died,” he said. People inside the church and standing outside fell to their knees.

The pope was last seen in public Wednesday when, looking gaunt and unable to speak, he briefly appeared at his window.

His health sharply deteriorated the next day after he suffered a urinary tract infection.

In its last medical statement Saturday, Navarro-Valls said John Paul was not in a coma and opened his eyes when spoken to. But he added: “Since dawn this morning, there have been first signs that consciousness is being affected.”

“Sometimes it seems as if he were resting with his eyes closed, but when you speak to him he opens his eyes,” Navarro-Valls said.

Navarro-Valls said the pope was still speaking late Friday but did not take part when Mass was celebrated in his presence Saturday morning.

He said aides had told the pope that thousands of young people were in St. Peter’s Square on Friday evening. Navarro-Valls said the pope appeared to be referring to them when he seemed to say: “‘I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.’”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was one of the pope’s closest aides and is said by some be a front-runner to succeed him, was quoted Saturday as saying that when he saw the pontiff on Friday morning, John Paul was “aware that he is passing to the Lord.”

The pope “gave me the final farewell,” the news agency of the Italian bishops conference quoted the German cardinal as saying Friday night.

The College of Cardinals will come together in public next week for the papal funeral Mass. The papal electors will then assemble within nine days to two weeks of the funeral to pick the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

In addition to Ratzinger - the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog - others mentioned as possible successors include Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican-based Nigerian, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria and Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Italy.

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