Catholics keep vigil for dying pope

Grim statements describe a rapid deterioration of health

`Christ throws open the doors'

Prayers, hymns, tears shared around the world

End Of A Papacy

April 02, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

VATICAN CITY - With tens of thousands of people praying and singing hymns in St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul II neared death this morning, his kidneys failing, his breathing shallow and Roman Catholic leaders taking steps to prepare the pontiff's followers for the reality that his fading life would soon be over.

"This evening or this night, Christ throws open the doors to John Paul II," Angelo Comastri, the pope's vicar general for Vatican City told about 30,000 people gathered last night in the chill of the square, many gazing above to the lit room of the pope's Vatican apartment.

"When the father suffers, the children come to be by his side. When the father dies, the children get on their knees and pray."

The vicar's words were as close as Vatican leaders came to saying that the pope's death was near, but it followed a series of unusually grim medical statements about his condition.

In early evening, the Vatican issued its most pessimistic comments to date on the pope's health. A urinary tract infection that sparked a fever had led to further complications. His blood pressure was suffering "a gradual worsening," and his breathing was shallow.

"The general conditions and cardio-respiratory conditions of the Holy Father have further worsened," said the statement by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. "A gradual worsening of arterial hypotension has been noted, and breathing has become shallow. The clinical picture indicates cardio-circulatory and renal insufficiency. The biological parameters are notably compromised."

His words were clinical, but his emotions conveyed the unmistakable message that Pope John Paul's 26-year reign would soon be over. Navarro-Valls, who in the pope's two recent hospitalizations appeared stoic and unflappable, trembled and fought back tears when describing the pontiff's condition.

"Certainly this is an image that I haven't seen before in these 26 years," he said of Pope John Paul, who became leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics in October 1978. "The pope is lucid and extraordinarily serene, but of course he is having trouble breathing."

He said that the pope had suffered massive heart problems and was in "very grave" condition. But the pope, he said in the afternoon, was receiving top aides and had asked for a reading of the Third Hour, the biblical account of Christ's crucifixion and burial.

Health bulletins last night and early this morning were silent about whether the pope was still conscious.

During daylight, several hundred holding vigil for the pope mingled with the springtime tourists on a sunny and warm day on St. Peter's Square.

As the sun set and the weather cooled and the reality that the pope's body was not matching his will, thousands more people streamed to the square, some dropping to their knees in prayer, tears on their cheeks.

Even the most faithful, though, seemed to realize that nothing short of a miracle will get Pope John Paul over this most recent, and most serious, health crisis.

"I am here because Papa is dying," said Luca Risso, 24, using the term of endearment for the pope. "I am praying for him to go gently."

At about 9 p.m., four large television screens erected in front of St. Peter's flickered to life, and the crowd that had gathered surged toward them.

That is when the vicar told those gathered that Christ had opened his doors to the pope. His words were followed by a recitation of the rosary, and thousands more people streamed to St. Peter's Square to take part.

"The pope's faith is so strong - and so full of experience of God so intensively lived - that he, in these hours of sufferance, already sees and already touches Christ," the vicar said.

Around the world, the faithful gathered in their own places and prayed in their own ways for the third-longest-reigning pope.

They gathered and prayed in his native Poland, where he was born Karol Wojtyla. They gathered in Mexico and Jerusalem, in France and in the United States.

The White House said that President Bush and his wife were praying for the pope and that the outpouring of affection for the pontiff was "a testimony to his greatness."

Pope John Paul was administered the sacrament of the sick and dying on Thursday; he chose not to return to the hospital for treatment but to stay in the papal apartment.

The pope received the sacrament after his health declined sharply from complications from the infection and fever.

In a medical update, the Holy See said the pontiff was provided with "all the appropriate therapeutic provisions of cardio-respiratory assistance," by the Vatican medical team. The pope was being treated by his personal doctor, two intensive care doctors, a cardiologist, two nurses and an ear, nose and throat specialist.

The pope underwent a tracheotomy to insert a breathing tube in his throat Feb. 24. It was his second hospitalization in a month, both caused by breathing difficulties. Earlier this week, he was fitted with a feeding tube.

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