In the Pontiff’s homeland, crowds streamed into churches to pray for their revered countryman and moral authority.
Churches in the capital Warsaw and the southern city of Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla was archbishop before becoming Pope in 1978, filled with worshippers in that early hours as bulletins delivered the news that his condition was grave.
“I have a class exam today and I was studying late last night listening to the radio,” Lidia Majecka, an 18-year-old student, said after attending Mass at one of Krakow’s churches.
“With the constant flow of reports on the Pope’s health, I couldn’t concentrate. I thought this morning: what is the exam compared to the Pope’s pain? So I came to pray for his health.”
In the southern Tatra mountains, where the young Wojtyla used to preach, hundreds took part in an all-night vigil.
Masses were taking place in churches across the country, with many leaving work for a few minutes to pray for the man many see as their spiritual father.
“I should be at work but I wanted to come to church even for a few minutes,” said a tearful Beata Laczynska, 40. “I had to pray for him. I couldn’t work without this.”
Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Papal deputy who is traditionally charged with breaking the news of a papal death, called on Romans and Italians to step up their prayers for the ailing Pontiff.
“In the worsening of the infirmity which has struck the Holy Father, I invite all Roman and all Italians to intensify their prayers for him,” said Ruini.
“We want to be close to him in this hour through the same loving closeness with which John Paul II has accompanied us for nearly 27 years.”
Several hundred worshippers gathered at St Peter’s Square under heavy police presence to await further news after John Paul II received rites administered to the sick when approaching death after his health took a dramatic turn for the worse.
In the Holy Land, which the Pope visited in a landmark tour in 2000 to plead for greater tolerance in the land sacred to the world’s great religions, Catholics were holding anxious vigils. Special prayers were organised in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.
“We are following the news all the time,” said Saadi Abu Saada, a 28-year-old journalist.
In Jerusalem’s Old City many were glued to their televisions and radios, refusing to believe the Pope was close to death, as the Latin patriarcate called on the faithful to offer prayers for the ailing pontiff.
The Archbishop of Paris Andre Vingt-Trois called on all parishes to pray for the pontiff as special prayers were to be held at the Notre Dame cathedral late yesterday evening.
“This morning we have learned of a serious aggravation of the pope’s condition. As John Paul II made a pilgrimage last summer to Lourdes, we entrust him to the intervention of Our Lady of Lourdes,” Archbishop Vingt-Trois said.
It was a measure of the Pope’s long battle for a reconciliation between the world’s faiths that even non-Catholics in this diverse nation were anxiously awaiting further news of the Pope.
Even Turkish extremist Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to assassinate John Paul in 1981, was praying for his ailing “brother” from his Istanbul prison cell, his lawyer Mustafa Demirbag said.
“My client is very sad,” Demirbag said in a telephone interview. “His thoughts are with his brother, the Pope, and he is praying for him.”
In London, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, reflected on the “extraordinary papacy” of John Paul.
“In some way he’s moved the role of... his ministry very much, not just for Roman Catholics, not even for fellow Christians ... but other faiths, indeed the whole world,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor told reporters.
“He’s been a moral voice, and in that sense I think the Papacy and what it represents has an even more significant role in the world than it ever had before.”
The leader of the country’s Roman Catholics called for all Catholics in the country to pray for the Pope.
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz told the faithful who had gathered in Moscow’s Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception that the 84-year-old “health dramatically worsened.”
At a mass held to pray for John Paul, he called on Catholics in Russia to “offer your prayers, strengthened by good deeds and acts of charity” for the Pope’s life.
The Russian Orthodox leadership, who represent the major Christian denomination in this vast country has accused Catholics of poaching converts in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
The dispute has blocked a papal visit to Russia, a long-held wish of the Polish-born Pontiff.
A priest in the quake-hit Indonesian island of Nias said the Pope’s death would be hard to bear for Catholics there, struggling to come to terms with their own loss.
Pastor Frans Sinaga of St Mary’s Cathedral on the island of Nias, which was worst hit by the 8.7-scale earthquake this week, said prayers would be said.
“With the situation as it is now in Nias, I’m sure his death will be even harder for us to bear,” he said.
St Mary’s Cathedral is being converted into a morgue for 60 corpses, victims of the quake.
Special Masses were scheduled across the Asian island nation.
Cardinal Jaime Sin, the most influential clergyman in the Philippines, said: “We pray for God’s guidance and strength in this difficult time.
“We continue to pray for the Pope.”
In Cairo, Egypt, the Rev Giuseppe Picotti, a member of an order of Catholic missionaries, said he and his fellow priests share the suffering of the Pope, whom he described as a “man of high spirituality and humanity”.
That sentiment was echoed by Pius Ncube, the archbishop of Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe. “I am praying that he goes home gently,” the archbishop said. “At 84, he has lived a full life. It doesn’t make sense to pray for his recovery.”
Catholics across Africa bowed their heads amid the chaos of large cities like Lagos, Nigeria and Kinshasha, Congo.
“He is the first pope to have brought together Muslims, Hindus, and worshippers of other religions,” said Flavien Kiope, who teaches at a Catholic school in Kinshasa, capital of war-battered Congo.