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Pope John Paul II dies after long struggle with illness

Pope John Paul II passed away in his private apartment early Sunday Australian time (9:37 pm Saturday in Rome), after a long struggle with illness, ending a historic papacy of more than 26 years.

The Vatican announced the pope's death at 17 minutes later, two days after the Holy Father suffered septic shock and heart failure brought on by a urinary tract infection.

Pope John Paul's body was to be brought to St Peter's Basilica for public viewing and prayer "no earlier than Monday afternoon," the Vatican said in a statement.

Conscious and alert the day before his death, the pope was able to concelebrate Mass in his papal apartment, the Vatican said. He began slipping in and out of consciousness on Saturday morning local time, and died that night, it said.

Tens of thousands of faithful streamed to St Peter's Square as the pope lay dying, some staying all night in quiet and moving vigils, aware that there was little hope for his recovery.

The Pope's death was announced in St. Peter's Square after a prayer service. The bells of St. Peter's Basilica tolled a steady death knell.

"Dear brothers and sisters, at 9:37 this evening our most beloved Holy Father John Paul II returned to the house of the Father. Let us pray for him," Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, a top official of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, told the crowd.

Spokesman Joaquim Navarro-Valls later 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 the thousands of faithful who, for many hours, had been gathered in St. Peter's Square."

The spokesman said those at the pope's bedside at the moment of his death included: his personal secretaries, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz and Msgr. Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki; Cardinal Marian Jaworski, the Latin-rite archbishop of Lviv, Ukraine, and a longtime personal friend of the pope; Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity; and Father Tadeusz Styczen, a former student of the pope's and director of the John Paul II Institute at Lublin University in Poland.

Also present were the three nuns who cared for the pope's apartment, the pope's personal physician and two other doctors and two nurses, the spokesman said.

About 90 minutes before the pope died, Navarro-Valls said, the cardinals and priests at the pope's bedside began celebrating the Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday. During the course of the Mass, he said, the pope received Communion and the anointing of the sick.

The Vatican announced that a Mass celebrating Divine Mercy Sunday would be celebrated the morning of April 3 in St. Peter's Square.

Vatican Radio interrupted regular programming, and the radio's program director, Fr Federico Lombardi, celebrated Mass in Latin.

The Italian Parliament lowered its flag to half-staff after the pope's death was announced.

In Warsaw, the capital of the pope's native Poland, the pope's death was marked by the tolling of church bells and the sounding of air-raid sirens. On Polish TV, several commentators were in tears as they announced the pope's death.

For more than a decade, the pope suffered from a neurological disorder believed to be Parkinson's disease. As the pope's health failed in recent months, many of his close aides said his physical decline, never hidden from public view, offered a remarkable Christian witness of suffering.

The pope's death ends a history-making pontificate of more than 26 years, one that dramatically changed the church and left its mark on the world. Many observers consider Pope John Paul an unparalleled protagonist in the political and spiritual events that shaped the modern age, from the end of the Cold War to the start of the third millennium.

For the church, the pope's death set in motion a period of official mourning and reflection that will culminate in the election of his successor. Pope John Paul's funeral, expected to be attended by world leaders from far and wide, will take place four to six days after his death.

Cardinals were already making their way to Rome to participate in a papal conclave or election, scheduled to begin 15-20 days after his death. The 183 members of the College of Cardinals were to participate in preliminary discussions before the election, and the 117 cardinals under the age of 80 were eligible to vote in the closed-door conclave.

A youthful 58 when elected in 1978, the pope experienced health problems early. He was shot and almost killed in 1981 and spent several months in the hospital being treated for abdominal wounds and a blood infection. In later years, he suffered a dislocated shoulder, a broken thigh bone, arthritis of the knee and an appendectomy. He stopped walking in public in 2003 and stopped celebrating public liturgies in 2004.

In the hours before his death, prayers went up on the pope's behalf from all over the world, from China to the pope's native Poland, from Christians and non-Christians. Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, came to St. Peter's Square to pray, saying he wanted to offer "a sign of participation" with the church.

As the pope lay dying, journalists who tried to enter the square were turned away unless they were coming to pray. The world's media arrived in unprecedented force, surrounding the Vatican with broadcasting trucks and film crews. A supplementary press office was prepared for the thousands of reporters expected to arrive for the pope's funeral and the conclave.

The Vatican's Web site was overloaded soon after the pope's situation took a turn for the worse, and the Vatican switchboard was jammed. E-mail messages also poured in, offering prayers and condolences.

The city of Rome announced plans to deal with the flood of visitors expected in Rome in the days after the pope's death. A special bus line was to run directly to the Vatican from the train station, and officials said they would set up tents around the Vatican to provide assistance to pilgrims.

Pope John Paul II dies after long struggle with illness (Catholic News Service 2/4/05)


4 Apr 2005