Pope John Paul II, the Polish pontiff who led the Roman Catholic Church for more than a quarter century and became history’s most-travelled pope, died tonight in his Vatican apartment. He was 84.
“The Holy Father died this evening at 8.37pm in his private apartment. All the procedures outlined in the apostolic Constitution ‘Universi Dominici Gregis’ that was written by John Paul II on February 22, 1996, have been put in motion,” the Holy See said in a statement.
The announcement came from papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls and was distributed to journalists via e-mail. John Paul expired as cardinals were leading some 70,000 people in prayers for him in his “last journey”.
The pope died after suffering heart and kidney failure following two hospitalisations in as many months. Just a few hours earlier, the Vatican had said he was in “very serious” condition but responded to members of the papal household.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican No2 official, immediately led a tearful crowd of 70,000 people in St Peter’s Square in prayers for the dead pope.
Some people held their hands to their heads in disbelief – on other faces, tears rolled down uncontrollably. The pope’s apartment windows were still lit up following the announcement of his death.
“He was a marvellous man. Now he’s no longer suffering,” said Concetta Sposato, a pilgrim who heard the pope had died as she was on her way to St. Peter’s Square to pray.
“My father died last year. For me, it feels the same,” said Elisabetta Pomacalca, a 25-year-old Peruvian who lives in Rome.
Since his surprise election in 1978, John Paul travelled the world frequently, staunchly opposing communism in his native Poland and across the Soviet bloc but also preaching against rampant consumerism, contraception and abortion.
John Paul was a robust 58-year-old when the cardinals stunned the world and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
In his later years, however, John Paul was the picture of frailty, weighed down by ailments that included Parkinson’s disease. Although he kept up his travels, he was too weak to kiss the ground any more.
His papacy has been marked by its call to value the aged and to respect the sick, subjects the pope turned to as he battled Parkinson’s disease and crippling knee and hip ailments. The pope also survived a 1981 assassination attempt, when a Turkish gunman shot him in the abdomen.
A fierce enemy of communism, he set off the sparks that helped bring down communism in Poland, from where a virtual revolution spread across the Sovet bloc. No less an authority than former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said much of the credit went to John Paul.
At the same time, John Paul was no friend of Western lifestyles, warning against rampant consumerism and casual sex.
Hospitalised twice in the past two months after breathing crises, and fitted with a breathing tube and a feeding tube, John Paul had become a picture of suffering.
The pontiff was reported to have had a fever on Thursday night, which the Vatican blamed on a urinary tract infection that later led to the heart and kidney failure.
Navarro-Valls had said earlier today that John Paul was not in a coma and opened his eyes when spoken to. But he added: “Since dawn this morning, there have been first signs that consciousness is being affected.”
“He’s aware he’s passing to the Lord,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of John Paul’s closest advisers, told the Italian bishops’ news agency earlier today.
The pope was last seen in public on Wednesday when, looking gaunt and unable to speak, he briefly appeared at his window.
Cardinals from around the world were heading to Rome. After the official mourning period following the death of a pope, cardinals hold a secret vote in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor.
The Il Secolo XIX newspaper of Genoa reported that the pope, with the help of his private secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, had written a note to his aides urging them not to weep for him.
“I am happy, and you should be as well,” the note reportedly said. “Let us pray together with joy.”
However, Navarro-Valls said he couldn’t confirm the report, even after speaking to the pope’s secretary.