The Pope was clinging to life in grave condition today after suffering heart failure, but he was still lucid, fully conscious and ”extraordinarily serene,” the Vatican said.
His long-time spokesman, breaking into tears at times, said 84-year-old John Paul was “informed of the gravity of his situation” and decided to remain in his apartment overlooking St Peter’s Square, where thousands of people stood vigil.
They stared up at the window from where the first Polish pope has addressed millions of faithful during an extraordinary 26 year papacy, the third longest in Church history. He was last seen there two days ago, gaunt and unable to speak.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that after John Paul’s already fragile health declined sharply last night, the Pope participated in Mass from his bed and received seven top aides this morning.
“The Pope is still lucid, fully conscious and extraordinarily serene,” Navarro-Valls said. But he said the Pope remained in “very grave” condition with unstable blood pressure.
John Paul asked aides to read him the biblical passage describing the final stage of the Way of the Cross, the path that Christ took to his crucifixion, Navarro-Valls said.
In that stage, according to the Bible, Christ’s body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in his tomb.
Navarro-Valls said the Pope followed attentively and made the sign of the cross.
“This is surely an image I have never seen in these 26 years,” the usually unflappable Navarro-Valls said. Choking up, he walked out of the room.
Later, in a statement that gave no new information about his condition, the Vatican said the Pope appointed a large number of bishops and other church officials.
John Paul’s medical problems have been building over the past decade, since he first showed the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder.
He was in hospital twice last month because of breathing problems and had a tube inserted in his throat.
On Thursday, he suffered a “cardio-circulatory collapse” and septic shock during treatment for a urinary tract infection, the Vatican said, but denied a report that he was in a coma.
The Pope received the sacrament for the sick and dying on Thursday evening. Formerly called the last rites, the sacrament is often misunderstood as signalling imminent death. It is performed both for patients at the point of death and for those who are very sick – and it may be repeated.
The Rome daily La Repubblica reported Friday that the sacrament was administered by John Paul’s closest aide, Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who serves as his private secretary.
Dziwisz had given the pontiff the same sacrament on February 24 just before the Pope underwent a tracheotomy to insert a breathing tube in his throat at the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital.
Former Detroit Archbishop Edmund Szoka, of Polish extraction and one of the Vatican officials to visit the papal apartment today, said John Paul was “having trouble breathing, and that’s the difficulty”.
“He has a very strong heart,” Szoka said. “If he can get his breathing back, if they can do something to get him to breathe again normally, he could be all right, he could get well.”
Among the aides received today were Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who as the pontiff’s vicar for Rome would publicly announce the death of a pope; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals who would inform cardinals, ambassadors and heads of states upon the death of a pope; and Archbishop Paolo Sardi, the Vatican vice chamberlain.
The chamberlain, or camerlengo, runs the Holy See between the death of a pope and the election of a new one.
What follows the death of a Pope is carefully laid out: from the tolling of bells to the smashing of the pope’s fisherman’s ring, to informing the cardinals and world leaders.
The Pope is buried four to six days after his death. Where John Paul wishes to be buried is written in his testament, and many wonder whether it will be in St Peter’s along with other popes or in Krakow’s Wavel Cathedral alongside Polish royalty.
According to church law, the conclave of cardinals that meets to elect a successor must begin between 15 and 20 days after the pontiff dies. There are now 117 cardinals under age 80 and eligible to vote.
John Paul was attended to in his apartment by the Vatican medical team and provided with “all the appropriate therapeutic provisions and cardio-respiratory assistance”, the Holy See said.
It said the Pope was being helped by his personal doctor, two intensive care doctors, a cardiologist, an ear, nose and throat specialist and two nurses.
Heart failure occurs when the heart no longer has the strength to pump blood through the body, and is a sign that the body’s cardiac system is failing.