Pope John Paul II dies

26 years as leader of Catholic Church transformed papacy

Political influence felt around world

Pope John Paul Ii : 1920 - 2005

April 03, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II died yesterday, more than a quarter-century after beginning a reign that transformed the papacy. He succumbed to years of health problems that ravaged his body but did little to diminish his control of the Roman Catholic Church or his political influence across the globe.

The pope, 84, died during the third day of a worldwide vigil marked most poignantly by huge crowds that gathered outside his apartment above St. Peter's Square, from where he had led them in prayer for so many years.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims had journeyed to be near him at the end, offering silent prayers, gentle hymns and - from the young people he made a special effort to reach - rhythmic clapping keeping beat to energetic songs dedicated to "Papa."

"The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. [2:37 p.m. Eastern time] in his private apartment. All the procedures outlined in the apostolic Constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis" that was written by John Paul II on Feb. 22, 1996, have been put in motion," the Vatican said in a statement sent to journalists by e-mail.

The pope's body was expected to be taken to St. Peter's Basilica no earlier than tomorrow afternoon, the Vatican said, and the College of Cardinals would meet tomorrow at 10 a.m. local time to set a funeral date.

News of the pontiff's death quickly reached around the globe, to churches where prayer services were being held at the moment of his death, to the more than 130 countries this most-traveled of all popes had visited and well beyond.

At St. Peter's Square, Vatican officials broke the news to the estimated 70,000 people who had gathered there on that chilly spring night precisely because they knew the pope was dying but who nevertheless seemed stunned.

"Our much beloved Holy Father, John Paul II, has returned to the home of his father - and we pray for him," said Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican's undersecretary of state, standing on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, a short distance from where the lights still burned in the windows of the pope's apartment.

"We all feel like orphans this evening," the archbishop said.

After a brief silence, those gathered on the cobbled stones - the nuns, the priests, the children, the couples young and old - began clapping softly, then more loudly - though dozens of people dropped to their knees, overcome. "Papa!" several people sobbed.

When the clapping stopped, an almost eerie quiet set in for perhaps a minute, only the splashing water from the great fountains on the square being audible, along with the many sobs and the soft, murmuring voices trying to comfort those in most need.

Then there was more clapping and then silence again until a lone man began singing "Allelujah, he will rise again," in Italian under the pope's window. He had no microphone and sang softly but he could be heard from the farthest points of St. Peter's Square and soon others joined the singing with him.

One man waved a giant Polish flag adorned with a black stripe of mourning. John Paul II was the first non-Italian to be elected pope in 455 years, but he was taken in by Romans as one of their own.

"We joke in Italy that we can make another pope but we cannot make another John Paul," said Gianluca Maggio, a 26-year-old Roman on hand for the prayers, now rubbing the shoulders of a crying, elderly woman he did not know but who stood in front of him and seemed to need the comfort. "We can pray to God, but there will never be another pope like him. "

The pope's death was formally verified according to centuries-old custom, by the Vatican chamberlain.

Officials confirmed that the chamerberlain had destroyed the pope's Fisherman's ring and dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters, both symbols of his authority.

As news of the pontiff's death spread through Rome, thousands more people flocked to the square, jamming some of the city's widest boulevards.

Police put the crowd that gathered for a memorial Mass to John Paul II at 100,000, their prayers recited against a mournful backdrop of large bells pealing across Vatican City.

Giant television screens on the square, one nearly under the pope's window, said: "The Angels Welcome You."

There will be more tears. Funeral rites for the pope span nine days, though the Vatican could say yesterday only that the burial would probably be between Wednesday and Friday.

It is not known if he will be interred alongside the other successors to St. Peter's seat in the sacred grottoes of St. Peter's Basilica or if, as the first Slavic pope, he had left instructions to be carried back to his beloved Poland.

A Mass is scheduled for him this morning at 10:30 on St. Peter's Square, and a conclave of cardinals has from 15 to 20 days from yesterday to begin selecting his successor.

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