- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II died last night in his apartment high above St. Peter’s Square, plunging the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics into mourning for one of the best-loved pontiffs in history.

“The Holy Father died this evening at 21:37 in his private apartment,” the chief Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said in a statement released 13 minutes after the time that the Holy See reported that John Paul’s life ended.

The Polish-born pope died at 2:37 p.m. EST — 9:37 p.m. in Rome. He was 84.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims and faithful who had gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for John Paul first heard of his death from Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine member of the pope’s household staff.

“We feel like orphans tonight,” Archbishop Sandri said.

John Paul’s 26-year pontificate, the third-longest of all, saw him became a respected and beloved figure to those of many faiths and the most-traveled pope in history. But in recent months, he had been confined to Rome by his struggle against debilitating illness.

In Washington, President Bush, with wife Laura at his side, said, “The world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home.”

A Mass was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. today in St. Peter’s Square. The pope’s body was expected to be taken to St. Peter’s Basilica no earlier than tomorrow afternoon, the Vatican said.

The pontiff — who spearheaded the rout of communism by supporting the Solidarity free trade-union movement in his homeland and gave the church a new icon of energy, humanity and doctrinal conservatism — died surrounded by his closest aides and household staff.

Those at the bedside of the pope, who was baptized Karol Wojtyla, included his two personal secretaries, the cherished Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz and Monsignor Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki.

Also present were the three Polish nuns who assisted in the pope’s apartment and John Paul’s personal physician, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the Vatican said.

“The Holy Father’s final hours were marked by the uninterrupted prayer of all those who were assisting him in his pious death and by the choral participation in prayer of thousands of faithful who, for many hours, had been gathered in St. Peter’s Square,” the Vatican said.

“We’re grateful to God for sending such a man … a hero for the ages,” said Mr. Bush, who went to war in Iraq despite the pope’s opposition, but who as a born-again Christian shared many views with the pontiff.

Mr. Bush ordered U.S. flags at the White House and other government installations to fly at half-staff. The president and first lady then joined Catholics, other Christians and those of other faiths at an evening Mass celebrating the life of John Paul.

“He was a man who loved other people,” Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, said during the service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington. “He was a man who had been challenged and been purified in the difficulties of fascism and communism.”

At the moment of the pope’s death, a huge crowd was slowly ebbing out of St. Peter’s Basilica, where the faithful had participated in a Mass to pray for the mortally ill pontiff.

At 9:50 p.m. came the stark announcement broadcast to those in St. Peter’s Square by Archbishop Sandri, who frequently has delivered the pope’s messages.

Many stood quietly, holding rosaries and pictures of the Virgin Mary. Some started to applaud, a common response in Italy to events of great moment.

Then, through the loudspeakers, a priest recited the “Salve Regina,” the ancient prayer for such occasions.

The traditional signs the crowd had awaited — the closing of the shutters of the pope’s bedroom and the tolling of the basilica’s bell — had been bypassed in favor of the brute efficiency of the electronic media.

At the top of the square, by the steps of the cathedral, a young Polish man slowly waved a huge red-and-white flag of Poland.

Thousands thronged to the Vatican from around Rome when they heard the news. Within an hour, there was no more room in the square, and new arrivals joined in solemn prayers from the wide boulevard leading to the River Tiber.

Mr. Navarro-Valls followed his brief announcement of John Paul’s death with these words: “All the procedures foreseen in the apostolic constitution ‘Universi Dominici gregis’ [‘the Lord’s whole flock’], promulgated by John Paul II [on] Feb. 22, 1996, have been put in motion.”

The 1996 constitution changed the rules of the conclave that will be held to select the next pope.

One change is that a new pope can be elected by a simple majority of the conclave if a two-thirds majority for a candidate is not obtained within 13 days — a change that some say will favor the conservative majority among the 117 cardinals who are 80 or younger and thus eligible to cast ballots.

Catholics believe the outcome of the vote is guided by the Holy Spirit.

Just a few hours before John Paul’s death, the Vatican said the pope was in “very serious” condition, but had responded to members of the papal household.

No cause of death was given last night, in keeping with Holy See protocol. But Vatican sources said the pope had sustained multiple organ failure after months of debilitating illness caused by influenza, Parkinson’s disease and arthritis.

Autopsies never are carried out on popes.

During Easter ceremonies last weekend, John Paul had not been able to personally preside over the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum as he had done every other year during his reign. Instead, he appeared via video link.

On Easter Sunday, John Paul appeared at his window and made the sign of the cross. But he failed in an attempt to speak, having lost his voice after a tracheotomy was performed to ease severe breathing crises exacerbated by the flu and Parkinson’s disease.

Vatican officials and the Roman Curia, the central government of the church, have been highly sensitive to press criticism of the medical treatment that the pope received in the past 15 years.

Critics had accused the Vatican of neglecting the medical needs of the previous pontiff, Pope John Paul I, who died after reigning for just 33 days.

The death of Pope John Paul II came about 50 hours after he suffered a crisis Thursday evening, which led to the frank admission by the Vatican that he was close to death.

The pope asked not to be hospitalized, preferring to spend his final hours close to the crowds gathered below in St. Peter’s Square.

The crowds — young and old, devout and otherwise — filled the square until — at the time of the announcement — there were about 70,000 visitors to hear it. High above, the lights in the papal apartment burned.

John Paul’s passing set in motion centuries of tradition that mark the death of the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

The Vatican chamberlain formally verified the death, which traditionally has been done by tapping a pope’s forehead three times with a silver hammer.

The Vatican summoned the College of Cardinals, and the Vatican chamberlain destroyed the symbols of the pope’s authority, his fisherman’s ring and dyes used to make lead seals for apostolic letters.

John Paul’s funeral will be held within four to six days.

The Vatican has declined to say whether he left instructions for his funeral or burial. Most popes in recent centuries asked to be buried in the crypts below St. Peter’s Basilica, but some observers suggested the first Polish-born pope might have chosen to be laid to rest in his native country.

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 the conclave, in which they sequester themselves in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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