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John Paul II Dies at 84

Senior prelates who called on John Paul in the past two days described poignant scenes of the pontiff clinging to life, unable to concelebrate the morning Mass said at his bedside. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, dean of cardinals and the Vatican's senior guardian of doctrine, told an Italian Catholic news agency that when he entered the pope's suite Friday, the pontiff "gave me the final farewell."

"He was aware that he is passing to the Lord," said Ratzinger, who worked closely with John Paul for almost 25 years.

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)

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Achille Silvestrini, a cardinal in charge of relations with churches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, visited the pope Saturday morning and said afterward: "His slow death throes proceed. I found him relaxed, placid, serene. He was in his bed. He was breathing without labor. He looked like he lost weight."

A pair of terse medical bulletins foreshadowed the end. For the first time since his health deteriorated sharply on Thursday, Vatican officials described the pope's mental condition without using the word lucid. Though denying that he was comatose, Navarro-Valls said he had lapsed into a "compromised state of consciousness."

By 11 p.m., with the death a fact, St. Peter's Square was filled to overflowing, and cars and pedestrians from all over the city set out for the Vatican. Rome's bells tolled again as prayers were repeated and hymns sung at St. Peter's. "He preached his last sermon through his death," said Gerald O'Collins, a theology professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Dominick Ostrowski, a 30-year-old diocesan priest from Turin who has cancer, said the pope "showed me that even if you're dying of a disease, you can still be efficient and attentive." Shielding a candle in his palm from the jostling crowd at St. Peter's, Ostrowski said John Paul "showed me not to be afraid."

In recent months, the Vatican effectively invited the world's Catholics to follow the pope's final days up close, sharing the experience of his death as a way of expressing his philosophy of life, which was to be lived fully, morally and actively to the very end.

"His human life ebbs away, and it is not only coming to an end, it is coming to a culmination," Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia said in a telephone interview shortly before the pope's death. "He has expressed, over and over again, the idea that human dignity is not in any way impaired by physical limitations. And now the whole world sees him in a moment of severe physical limitation as he approaches the moment of his death."

Thousands of people kept the somber vigil on St. Peter's Square. Most stood or sat on the cobblestones with their eyes lifted toward the papal apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace, which overlooks the square in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Some hugged each other as a group of 50 German women sang hymns in Latin. The crowd included people of all ages and many religions.

Henry Silver, 21, of Bethesda, said that as a Jew, he came to "pay my respects" to the "first pope to go to a synagogue and to pray at the Wailing Wall" in Jerusalem.

"He's the pope for Catholics, but I feel like he prays for everyone and has appreciation for everyone," said Silver, who is spending his junior at the University of Maryland studying in Rome. Sitting with him was classmate Emily Ferrall, also 21, a Roman Catholic from Olathe, Kan. She called John Paul "my only pope" because his pontificate began before she was born.

"He was the pope we learned about in Sunday school. And then he was the pope I taught about when I taught Sunday school," she said. "He's someone I've always been proud to say is the head of my church."

Following a pope's death, his ring is symbolically crushed, his apartment is sealed and all the top officials in the Vatican automatically lose their jobs except the camerlengo -- the chamberlain -- and two other officials who oversee day-to-day operations.

By Saturday afternoon, initial preparations for the funeral were underway. Workers dismantled a canopy on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica used to shield the pontiff and other church leaders from the sun during outdoor services. Portable toilets were hauled into place for the expected throngs of pilgrims who will come to the Vatican to view the pope's body and attend the funeral.

The Rome city government designated stadiums to house pilgrims and announced an increase in bus service. The state railway system will add trains.

In Vatican City, the post office announced that it would issue a special stamp, which can be used only in the interregnum before a new pope is elected. The "vacant See" stamp bears the image of crossed keys, the symbol of Saint Peter, but no papal headgear, as is customary.

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