The mournful word had just gone out that the pontiff had died when visitors lined up to pen messages in two condolence books at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Northeast Washington.
The notes they left were intimate, often using the present tense. To those who felt a bond with him, the pope was dead but very much still with them.
A parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua in Falls Church kneels in front of a statue of Jesus to pray.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
"You are the hope for the future," read one inscription. "We love you and pray for you."
Bethann Deveney, 38, of Wilmington, Del., expressed a gratitude that transcended the Roman Catholic Church: "Holy Father, you were a gift to the world."
Across Washington, the nation and the world, millions paused yesterday at news of the pope's death to remember him as a man who by example taught how to live with grace amid suffering.
Catholics remembered a popular pope who inspired and moved them, who harnessed the jet airplane and satellite television feeds to carry a hopeful message to a global flock. Those who loved him spoke in personal terms of bereavement, saying they felt they had lost not only a spiritual leader, but also a dear friend and family member. Protestants, Muslims and Jews praised him as a man who sought peace and understanding.
But there were divisions, too, among those who had observed this most public pope who led Catholics for 26 years. For some, his high profile only reminded them of their impatience with his firmly held convictions about the church and its role.
Yesterday was a day that began with prayer, not so much for a miraculous recovery, for few held even a slight hope that was possible. Rather, most people said they had been praying for John Paul II to meet a peaceful end, and their sadness at his death was tempered by the certainty that he was about to see the face of God.
"Let us pray for the repose of his great soul," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, said in a statement. "I have to believe that there will be great joy in heaven on the return home of the Vicar of Christ."
McCarrick led two Masses celebrating the pontiff's life yesterday, among his last public appearances before his departure today for Rome, where he and others in the College of Cardinals will meet to select a successor.
After celebrating noon Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington, McCarrick recalled meeting then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla 30 years ago. Over the years, McCarrick frequently told jokes that made the pope laugh. But lately, he had refrained from telling even gentle jokes, for fear that Parkinson's disease had made laughter painful for the pontiff.
"He was an extraordinary man," he said before an evening Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington. "He's gone back to God."
President Bush and his wife, Laura, were among more than 1,350 mourners at the cathedral, where black and gold bunting was draped around the door. As worshipers went to the flower-bedecked altar for Communion, they passed near the president, and one woman quietly told him, "Thank you for being here."
There were kind words for the pontiff in Boston, where the nationwide abuse scandal involving Catholic clergy emerged three years ago. Representatives of one victim advocacy group thanked him for drawing attention to the issue.