The vicar of Vatican City told thousands in St. Peter's Square that death was imminent.
ROME -- Pope John Paul II clung to life early today, suffering from multiple organ failure and other complications as the Vatican and millions of people around the world braced for his death.
By late Friday, tens of thousands of Romans filled the streets, crowding historic squares, praying, grieving and yet rejoicing in the Polish man who has led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years -- and waiting for news that most thought had become inevitable.
In what is likely the last struggle of his epic 26-year papacy, the 84-year-old pontiff prayed with aides and doctors as his kidneys faltered, his breathing grew shallow, his heartbeat slowed and his blood pressure plummeted.
As rumors flew around the city Friday evening, the Vatican took the unusual step of denying the pope's death. Late Friday, hours after the pope's condition was reported to have deteriorated further, he was "still conscious," an aide said.
Yet the Vatican appeared to acknowledge his death was imminent. Officials described his condition as "grave" and made no effort to present his rapidly declining health in a positive light.
"This evening or tonight, Christ will open the gates to the pope," Angelo Comastri, the vicar of Vatican City, told thousands of anxious worshipers gathered in St. Peter's Square.
Some people brought blankets, and others held candles as they awaited word of the pope's fate, expressing anguish for the suffering he is experiencing.
"It's sad, so sad that he's now carrying his cross on his own," said Alessandra Tonoli, 32. "I wish we could help him."
Above the crowd, the lights still burned in the windows of the papal apartment where the pope lay gravely ill. Aides said he had refused to be taken to a hospital for treatment. The curtains of the apartment, which have repeatedly opened in the past to reveal the pope greeting pilgrims, remained closed.
"John Paul II is in the middle of the most difficult trial of his long and extraordinary life," Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, told a special mass at St. John Lateran Cathedral. "In these hours of suffering ... he already sees and touches the Lord."
As he spoke, the Vatican issued a statement that seemed to signal that the end was near, saying that his condition was "worsening" and that his biological functions were "notably compromised."
"There is a gradual worsening of arterial hypertension. His breathing has become shallow. The clinical picture indicates cardio-circulatory and renal insufficiency," the statement said.
Yet the pope renowned for his ability to reach out and touch people's hearts continued to communicate with those around him, "joining in the continual prayers of those assisting him," the statement said.
Overnight Thursday, the pope suffered minor heart failure and septic shock caused by a urinary infection, accelerating the decline in his health precipitated by a bout with influenza in February. He received the Viaticum, the Communion for those who are gravely ill or dying.
Nonetheless, he remained "lucid, fully conscious and very serene" Friday morning, the Vatican said. He received visitors and requested that a passage from the Bible describing Christ's final journey to the cross be read to him, said his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
The pope celebrated Mass at 7:15 a.m. local time and "recalled that today was Friday, the day when one usually recites the stations of the cross," Navarro-Valls said. "He asked that the 14 Stations of the Cross be read to him. He followed the readings attentively.
"Just a few minutes before I came here to talk to you, he asked that parts of the Gospel be read to him, and he followed them attentively."
Asked for his personal opinion about the pope's condition, Navarro-Valls displayed rare emotion.
"Never in 26 years have I seen him this way," he said, his voice cracking with emotion and tears filling his eyes before he walked off the podium.
Among the visitors was Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the governor of Vatican City and the former archbishop of Detroit. He told CBS News that the pope was conscious and had recognized him. He said the pope was being given oxygen to aid his breathing.
"As soon as he saw me he recognized me," Szoka said. "I blessed him, and as I did he tried to make the sign of the cross. So he was perfectly lucid, perfectly conscious but was having a great deal of trouble breathing."
Also there were the most senior Vatican officials in charge of the administration of the tiny city state, including Archbishop Paulo Sardi, the Vatican's vice chamberlain responsible for administering the church between pontiffs.
For a pope who has devoted his papacy to defending the right to life, his valiant battle with death was poignantly apt. He staunchly opposed the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, the Iraq war and stem cell research, offending liberals and conservatives alike.
Yet he also appeared to be surrendering to the inevitability of his own death, and the Vatican described his state as "extraordinarily serene."
The pope was fully aware of the seriousness of his condition, Navarro-Valls said, and had requested that he not be hospitalized.
"From the moment the Holy Father was told of the gravity of his condition, the pope asked to stay in his apartment," he said.
Throughout Friday, Italians held their heads in their hands in cafes, sat with thousand-mile stares in piazzas and gathered by the thousands in sacred spots around the city.
Caron Miglio said the seriousness of the situation hit her when she woke Friday morning.
"You could just feel the difference between the other times he's been sick," she said. "This is a very sad city."
The mood in St. Peter's Square was also serene, and those who assembled to pray for him said they were resigned to the reality that he is likely to die soon.
"The pope is about to die, but the important thing is that he accepts this," said Simona Mire, 32.
The pope's precipitous decline began after he had made a brief, wordless appearance to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square for his regular weekly audience Wednesday. Visibly enfeebled and apparently in discomfort, the pope struggled vainly to speak and remained at his apartment window for a full four minutes before he was wheeled away.
Within hours, he was fitted with a nasal feeding tube.
He had never fully recovered from the influenza that sent him rushing to hospital in February with breathing difficulties. Two weeks later, he was back for a tracheotomy that left him breathing through a tube in his throat.
Yet his health had been visibly deteriorating for years, as the Parkinson's disease that first began to afflict him more than a decade ago began to take its toll.
In his last appearances, the dashing, extroverted and vivacious pope whose charisma charmed the world was transformed into a frail old man, his head drooping and his words, when they came, barely intelligible.