In his last moments, Pope John Paul II lay in the large but modestly furnished bedroom he had called home for 26 years. His longtime aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, a fellow Pole who for nearly 40 years was as close to him as a son, sat by his bedside and prayed. The pontiff was given the sacrament for the sick and dying. Thirteen other people were in the room -- doctors, nurses, servants and senior clerics -- when at 9:37 p.m. Saturday his heart finally stopped beating.
Those are the bare facts of the pope's death as reported by Joaquin Navarro-Valls, director of the Vatican press office. No one who was there has come forward to speak publicly, and much of John Paul's final hours are shrouded in mystery.
What few details the Vatican has offered depict a wise and long-suffering pontiff passing into eternity only after pausing to send one last message and bestow one more blessing upon the millions of faithful who followed and believed in him.
Navarro-Valls reported that on Friday evening John Paul "seemed to have said the following sentence: 'I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.' " The message, which the pope repeated several times, was apparently addressed to the young people who had gathered in St. Peter's Square to honor the pontiff in his final days, Navarro-Valls said.
Another account came from Marco Politi, Vatican reporter for La Repubblica newspaper, who quoted the Rev. Jarek Cielecki, editor of the Vatican news service, as saying: "At a certain point, a few moments before he died, the pope raised his right hand, moving it in an obvious, if only faint, gesture of blessing, as if he were aware of the crowd of the faithful present in the square who at the time were following the saying of the rosary.
"As soon as the prayer was over, the pope made a very great effort and said the word 'Amen.' A moment later, he was dead."
Politi did not indicate where Cielecki obtained this account, and Cielecki was not available for comment.
But Corrado Manni, a former Vatican physician who first diagnosed the pope's Parkinson's disease in the early 1990s, said he found the account plausible.
"Knowing him and his remarkable strength and character, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that he would have tried to raise his arm to bless the crowd yesterday," Manni said in a telephone interview. "His will was frightening. His heart was stronger than you could ever imagine.
"I was not in his room when he apparently raised his hand. But I wouldn't be surprised if he used his last strength to make a final gesture and force himself to say 'Amen.' "
The pope's protracted final ordeal began on Jan. 31, when the Vatican announced he had a mild case of flu. The next day he was admitted to Gemelli Polyclinic hospital with breathing difficulties and an inflamed throat. He was discharged after 10 days but soon suffered a relapse and returned to Gemelli for 18 days, undergoing a tracheotomy to help him breathe.
After the pope returned to the Vatican on March 13, officials lowered a curtain of silence that lasted through Easter. He appeared at his window on Easter Sunday, but was unable to utter more than a gutteral rasp to the crowd gathered below his window.
Three days later, on Wednesday, he made his final appearance, remaining at the window for about four minutes as the faithful cheered. Later that day, the Vatican broke its silence to disclose that the pontiff had been equipped with a feeding tube.