VATICAN CITY, April 1 -- When the evening rosary service ended, the giant television screens were dimmed and the breeze grew chill, but still the crowd lingered on the gray cobblestones of St. Peter's Square. There were clusters of seminarians who looked too young to shave, nuns in habits, women in black skirts and spiked heels, and parents in running shoes and denims pushing strollers with tightly bundled toddlers. Some nursed candles and fingered rosary beads, while others just stood silently before the floodlit basilica, serenaded by two glistening marble fountains.
They gathered Friday night for the solemn and timeless ritual of a pope's passing, but their vigil also honored the church he has guided for 26 years. For the death of John Paul II, when it finally comes, will not only conclude the human drama of a commanding spiritual leader's life and final struggle, but will also set off a transition with profound implications for the world's oldest religious institution, its 1 billion followers and the larger world.
The faithful gather at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City to pray for Pope John Paul II as reports surfaced that his health had declined precipitously. Similar scenes occurred around the world.
(Paul Hanna -- Reuters)
Photo Gallery: Catholics across the world pray for the ailing Pope John Paul II as he nears death.
Video: Cardinal McCarrick remembers the pope.
Video: Catholic religous leaders urge the faithful to pray for Pope John Paul II.
Video: Mass is held at Washington's Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
Video: The Post's Robin Wright shares her experiences covering the pope with washingtonpost.com's Terry Neal.
Church Officials announce the death to the crowd gathered at the Vatican.
President Bush reacts to the death of Pope John Paul II.
Live From St. Peter's Square.
The Post's Robin Wright shares her experiences covering the pope.
_____More From The Post_____
Pope Edges Near Death As Faithful Pray and Wait (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
A Vigil Of Hope For Beloved Compatriot (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Catholics Crowd into Churches to Pay Respect (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Under Windows, Pilgrims, Tourists Mill About and Pray (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Worshipers Pray for a Most Familiar Holy Figure (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Because he has ruled for so long and with such an iron will, the death of John Paul is certain to have unpredictable consequences, unleashing forces and momentum that have been pent up for years and shaking an established order that faces a wide range of challenges to its authority and certitude.
The immediate question will be who shall succeed him, and the contest that may take place over the next few weeks is far from settled. Many Vatican watchers are certain the new pope will cast himself as a traditionalist in John Paul's mold. There is a long list of candidates from Italy, which held a 450-year monopoly on the papacy until John Paul's selection, but others come from different parts of Europe and from Latin America.
Any European candidate will probably need to demonstrate his deep concern and respect for the Third World now that about half of the voting cardinals come from outside Europe. One sure bet: The new pope won't be from the United States, which is considered both too powerful and too suspiciously modern to produce a leader who can pass muster.
The cardinals eligible to vote, currently numbering 117, will convene in the Sistine Chapel in a secret session no later than 20 days after the pope's death. Under rules adopted during John Paul's reign, only those under age 80 are allowed to participate. They vote by secret ballot and any number of candidates can participate, according to "Inside the Vatican," an account by the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit scholar. If after 30 ballots no one receives a two-thirds majority, the necessary margin can be reduced to a simple majority, another change adopted under John Paul.
There are no declared candidates, and quiet campaigning is the unwritten rule. Many cardinals are already here at the Vatican, either because of their regular duties or because they are keeping a vigil for the ailing pontiff, and others are on the way.
Among those whose names have been touted as likely candidates, one of the strongest Italian entries is Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, who heads the Milan archdiocese, one of the world's largest. Several Latin American cardinals are also considered strong contenders, including Oscar Andre Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Claudio Hummes of Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria has been mentioned as a candidate to be the first African pope, and Christoph Schoenborn, archbishop of Vienna, is also on many informal lists.
John Paul cast himself and his church as defenders of eternal values and dogma, holding back the tide of soulless modernity and championing the sanctity of life. But whoever emerges when the white smoke rises from the Vatican chimney will face new issues and choices.
In dealing with issues of concern for the developed world, the new pope will have to decide whether to maintain John Paul's hard line on sex and gender issues, such as prohibiting priests from marrying, banning the ordination of women and condemning homosexuality as a sin. He will also have to decide whether to loosen the reins of control that John Paul wielded within the institution and allow more decentralization, granting a larger role to bishops, priests and lay people.
John Paul's stands on social and sexual issues generally played better in much of the Third World, where the faithful tend to be more socially conservative. But many there question the church's tough stand against any form of artificial birth control even in the face of rising birthrates and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
As science continues to push the frontiers of knowledge in areas such as stem cell research and human cloning, the new pope will have to decide how tough he should be in holding the line against medical advances that come with an ethical price tag.
He will need to thaw the relations with many American Catholics, who chose to reject or ignore church rules with which they disagreed under John Paul and shrugged at the concept of papal infallibility. And he will need to decide whether to wage a tougher, more transparent crackdown against pedophilia and other sexual misbehavior by priests, one of the issues that has alienated many American Catholics from the church.
Above all, the new pope will have to function in the shadow of his powerful predecessor, a man who carved out a place in history at a time when many other religious leaders were fading into the background.
The Polish-born John Paul came to the papacy at the height of the Cold War in 1978 and presided during the West's triumphant defeat of communism. At the same time he emerged as a tough critic of global capitalism and defender of the poor, reaching out to the Third World far beyond any previous prelate. He drew large and often emotional crowds during his many tours in Latin America, Asia and Africa. He also opened dialogues with other religions.
He became, in the words of biographer George Weigel, an unabashed admirer, "Not the man of the Catholic 20th century, but the man of the century, period."
Many in the crowd Friday night were too distraught to contemplate a Vatican without John Paul at its head. "It will be very difficult to substitute a man with the charisma of John Paul II -- we can't imagine anyone in his place," said Gianpiero Cabras, 50, an Italian government worker who came to pay his respects.
But others could see beyond their sadness to what the future might hold. "The pope has been an integrative figure during a difficult time," said Heinz Gottlob, 52, an economist from Cologne, Germany. "He has been an international-thinking pope. I'd be very curious to see a pope from Africa or South America. I think this would a good sign for the church community -- a worldwide church is crucial. This is the only chance."
Special correspondent Sheila Pierce contributed to this report.