Mourners gathered in St. Peter's Square and Poland to honor 'a marvelous man.'
VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope John Paul II, who helped topple communism in Europe and left a deeply conservative stamp on the church that he led for 26 years, died Saturday night in his Vatican apartment, ending a long public struggle against debilitating illness. He was 84.
"We all feel like orphans this evening," Undersecretary of State Archbishop Leonardo Sandri told the crowd of 70,000 that gathered in St. Peter's Square below the pope's still-lighted apartment windows.
In the massive piazza that stretches from St. Peter's Basilica, the assembled flock fell into a stunned silence before some people broke into applause -- an Italian tradition in which mourners often clap for important figures. Others wept. Still others recited the rosary. A seminarian slowly waved a large red-and- white Polish flag draped with black bunting for the Polish-born pontiff, the most-traveled pope in history.
At one point, prelates asked those in the square to stay silent so they might "accompany the pope in his first steps into heaven."
But as the Vatican bells tolled in mourning, a group of young people sang, "Alleluia, he will rise again." One strummed a guitar, and other pilgrims joined in singing the "Ave Maria."
"The angels welcome you," Vatican TV said after papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced the death of the pope, who had for years suffered from Parkinson's disease and came down with fever and infections in recent weeks.
In contrast to the church's ancient traditions, Navarro-Valls announced the death to journalists in the most modern of communication forms, an e-mail that said: "The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. in his private apartment." The spokesman said church officials now would be following instructions that John Paul had written for them Feb. 22, 1996. A precise cause of death was not given.
Gathered to honor
In the last two days of the pope's life, after it had become clear he would not recover, the tide of humanity near the vatican had ebbed and flowed, swelling again Saturday night.
"He was a marvelous man. Now he's no longer suffering," Concetta Sposato, a pilgrim who heard the pope had died as she was on her way to St. Peter's to pray, said tearfully.
"My father died last year. For me, it feels the same," said Elisabetta Pomacalca, a 25-year-old Peruvian who lives in Rome.
"I'm Polish. For us, he was a father," said pilgrim Beata Sowa.
A Mass was scheduled for St. Peter's Square for 10:30 a.m. today. The pope's body was expected to be taken to the basilica no earlier than Monday afternoon, the Vatican said.
It said the College of Cardinals -- the red-robed "princes" of the Roman Catholic Church -- would meet at 10 a.m. Monday in a pre-conclave session. They were expected to set a funeral date, which the Vatican said probably would be between Wednesday and Friday.
Karol Joseph Wojtyla was a robust 58 when the last papal conclave stunned the world and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
In his later years, John Paul was the picture of frailty. In addition to Parkinson's, he survived a 1981 assassination attempt, when a Turkish gunman shot him in the abdomen, and had hip and knee ailments. His anguished struggle with failing health became a symbol of aging and, in the end, death with dignity.
People in John Paul II's hometown in Wadowice, Poland, fell to their knees and wept as the news reached them at the end of a special Mass in the church where he worshipped as a boy.
Church bells rang out after the announcement, but it took several minutes for people inside the packed church to find out as they continued their vigil into a second night.
Then the parish priest, the Rev. Jakub Gil, came to the front as the last hymn faded away. "His life has come to an end. Our great countryman has died," he said. People inside the church and standing outside fell to their knees.
John Paul's passing set in motion centuries of tradition that mark the death of the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, whom he led into the faith's third millennium.
The Vatican chamberlain formally verified the death and destroyed the symbols of the pope's authority: his fisherman's ring and dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters.
The Vatican did not say if the chamberlain followed the other ancient practice of verifying death by calling the pope's name three times and tapping his forehead three times with a silver hammer.
The Vatican has declined to say whether John Paul left instructions for his funeral or burial. Most popes in recent centuries have asked to be buried in the crypts below St. Peter's Basilica, but some have suggested the first Polish-born pope might have chosen to be laid to rest in his native country.
As John Paul's death neared, members of the College of Cardinals were already headed toward the Vatican to prepare for the secret duty of locking themselves in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope. Tradition calls for the process to begin within 20 days of death.
In Washington, President Bush mourned the loss of "a good and faithful servant of God [who] has been called home" and said the pontiff "launched a democratic revolution that swept Eastern Europe and changed the course of history."
"The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd. The world has lost a champion of human freedom," the president said in a brief televised statement from the White House's majestic Cross Hall entryway.
Enemy of communism
A fierce enemy of communism, John Paul set off the sparks that helped bring down communism in Poland, from where a virtual revolution spread across the Soviet bloc. No less an authority than former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said much of the credit went to John Paul.
But his Polish roots also nourished a doctrinal conservatism. He reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control and denounced in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, sex outside marriage, homosexual relations and same-sex unions.
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