- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

Pope John Paul II was on the brink of death last night as his health took a sharp downturn, and tens of thousands of pilgrims and Romans gathered in St. Peter’s Square in silent vigil for the fading pontiff.

The Roman Catholic Church prepared the faithful for the close of one of its longest pontificates, after the Vatican said the 84-year-old pontiff had received the special Communion for those near death, the Holy Viaticum, upon suffering heart and kidney insufficiency.

The Holy See firmly denied a series of unsubstantiated Italian media reports that the frail Polish pope already had died.

Early yesterday, the Vatican said John Paul was in “very grave” condition after being smitten with 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 nightfall yesterday, the pope’s condition had worsened, 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.

About 60,000 people from around the world congregated in a specially illuminated St. Peter’s Square under the window of the pope’s study on the third story of the Apostolic Palace to pray for John Paul into the early hours today.

In other parts of the world, specifically in the pope’s native Poland, the Philippines and Nigeria, large crowds assembled to pray for the pontiff.

Monsignor Angelo Comastri, the pope’s vicar-general in the Vatican, led the fervent throng in recitation of the rosary and then urged them not to leave the square, but “to accompany the Holy Father in the silence of the evening.”

The pope “is about to die,” Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan told Mexican Televisa television from the Vatican.

John Paul “is in agony, on the point of dying,” the prelate said. “I have spoken to the doctors, and they told me that there is no more hope.”

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar of Rome, who, under Vatican protocol, must announce the pontiff’s death, said during a special Mass for John Paul that the pope “already sees and touches the Lord.”

The White House said that President Bush and his wife were praying for the pope and that the world’s concern was “a testimony to his greatness.”

Karol Wojtyla became a priest in 1946, just as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, and the inspiration he provided as Pope John Paul II helped to tear it down.

“Fifty percent of the collapse of communism is his doing,” Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement that toppled communism in Poland from 1989 to ‘90, told the Associated Press yesterday. Without the pope’s leadership, “communism would have fallen, but much later and in a bloody way,” he said.

Yesterday began with the chief Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, announcing that the pope’s condition was “very grave” after he developed a urinary-tract infection that caused a high fever, then heart failure on Thursday evening. Also on Thursday evening, the pope received the last rites from his cherished personal secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz.

These conditions followed the use of a nasal tube to feed the pope, who has lost weight during weeks of precarious health and two hospital stays. Mr. Navarro-Valls, nevertheless, said then that the pope was “conscious, lucid and serene” and that yesterday morning he had concelebrated Holy Mass.

Italian police closed off most of Vatican City to traffic yesterday, and Italy’s political parties suspended campaigning for regional elections in a sign of respect for John Paul, who as the bishop of Rome earned the respect of Italians in spite of being the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years.

Hopes that the pope might pull through faded after a medical bulletin yesterday evening said, “The Holy Father’s general and cardiorespiratory condition worsened further; his breathing became superficial,” and that his heart and kidney functions were “insufficient.”

The pope early yesterday asked to be read the 14 stations of the Way of the Cross.

“He followed the reading attentively, and I saw that he made the sign of the cross,” Mr. Navarro-Valls said. The 14 stations are a set of prayers depicting the last hours of Jesus Christ.

John Paul then asked to be read excerpts from the Scriptures, before receiving — one at a time — some of his closest aides to bid them farewell, including Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, and the pope’s personal theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the spokesman said.

Mr. Navarro-Valls choked up with emotion when he was asked how he felt seeing the pope’s losing struggle against death.

“Certainly, this was an image I never saw in the past 26 years,” he said tearfully.

Also tearful in St. Peter’s Square were groups of young Poles.

“This is our pope, and we want to be near him in the last moments of his life,” said Anna, a young woman who was among a group of 10 Poles who traveled from Warsaw and Krakow to St. Peter’s.

“This is the first time we find ourselves near the death of a pope. The pain is immense.”

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