VATICAN CITY, April 2 -- John Paul II, the voyager pope who helped conquer communism and transformed the papacy with charisma and vigor, died Saturday night after a long battle with Parkinson's disease that became a lesson to the world in humble suffering.
"Our most beloved Holy Father has returned to the house of the Father," Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, a senior Vatican official, told pilgrims in St. Peter's Square. The throng of about 60,000 momentarily stood in stunned silence, stared at the pavement and wept. Then, following an Italian custom that signifies hope at a time of death, the mourners broke into sustained applause.
Pope John Paul II was the most traveled pontiff in the history of the church, visiting 129 countries outside Italy.
(2001 Photo Claudio Papi -- Reuters)
John Paul died at 9:37 local time in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace on a clear and cool night, with a small group of Polish prelates and nuns at his bedside. The first indication of the pope's passing was the illumination of several windows in his private quarters overlooking St. Peter's Square. An e-mail announcement followed. A half-hour later, the bells of all of Rome's churches rang out in mourning.
The news evoked an outpouring of emotion throughout the world. In Paris, mourners packed special midnight services; church bells sounded in Cuba. President Bush called John Paul "a champion of human freedom" and "a good and faithful servant of God. . . . We're grateful to God for sending such a man, a son of Poland."
The pope's body will lie in state in St. Peter's Basilica beginning Monday afternoon. The date of his funeral will be set by a gathering of cardinals on Monday morning, but under guidelines set by him, it should take place within four to six days of his death. Within 15 to 20 days, the College of Cardinals will meet in the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor as bishop of Rome and supreme pontiff of the 1 billion-plus-member Roman Catholic Church.
The pope, who was 84, had slipped in and out of consciousness Saturday. The last medical bulletin from the Vatican, issued in the early evening, said he had developed a sudden fever in late morning. The pope had suffered from Parkinson's disease for years; his death was the culmination of a chain of medical setbacks that began in early February with influenza that forced him into a Rome hospital.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, his spokesman, said that the pontiff received the Viaticum, a rite for the approach of death, during an 8 p.m. bedside Mass and died surrounded by his closest Polish aides and household staff. The only Italians present were three physicians and two nurses.
His death brought an end to the Roman Catholic Church's third-longest papacy, a reign that was at once energetic, charismatic and polarizing.
John Paul successfully encouraged the largely peaceful revolts against Soviet rule in his native Poland and across Eastern Europe. He was the most traveled pontiff in the 2,000-year history of the church, visiting 129 countries outside Italy.
He created more saints than any of his predecessors and issued numerous encyclicals and other teaching documents, a total of nearly 100,000 pages. "He was the first world evangelist," said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the archbishop of Westminster in England.
John Paul also attacked what he considered moral relativism inside and outside the church and tamped out leftist movements in the church that operated under the rubric of liberation theology. He held a rigid line against contraception, abortion, cloning and same-sex marriage. He barred the ordination of women as priests and defended celibacy in the priesthood.
His election in October 1978 brought a new style to an old institution. He was the first non-Italian pope in 4 1/2 centuries. His athletic grace and humor captivated Rome and his global audiences. His command of television spread his teachings far beyond even the huge crowds he attracted on his travels, which included five trips to the United States.
To the end, even in visible pain, unable to walk and finally unable to speak, he used his physical presence as a teaching tool. On Easter Sunday, he sat at his apartment window for 12 minutes and tried to deliver a blessing to worshipers below. Failing, he brushed away aides who tried to wheel him from the window before he was ready.
On Saturday, Vatican officials said he was still trying to send messages. Navarro-Valls said the pope's advisers had "reconstructed" the words he wished to utter to young Catholics holding a vigil for him in St. Peter's Square. "I was looking for you. You have come for me, and I thank you," he was quoted as saying.