VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II died Saturday, ending a long, painfully public struggle against a host of debilitating ailments and a globetrotting reign that made him one of the towering figures of his time. He was 84.
The Polish prelate who led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years succumbed in his apartment at the Vatican's Apostolic Palace at 9:37 p.m., papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
Weakened for more than a decade by Parkinson's disease, the pope was overcome by fever, infection and heart and kidney failure last week after two hospitalizations in as many months. He slipped in and out of consciousness Saturday, surrounded by the only family he had: five Polish priests and bishops and four Polish nuns who had looked after him for years.
The Vatican gave no precise cause of death.
"Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father," Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican undersecretary of state, told the 60,000 people standing vigil in St. Peter's Square below the pope's still-lighted third-floor apartment windows. The crowd fell into tearful silence, then broke into applause, an Italian sign of respect.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 05, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Papal funeral -- A graphic in Sunday's Section A said Pope John XXIII was buried along with other pontiffs in the grottoes beneath St. Peter's Basilica. His remains were moved into the basilica after his beatification in 2000.
"We all feel like orphans this evening," Sandri said.
Bells tolled in mourning across Rome and condolences poured in from around the world. President Bush said, "The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd, the world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home."
The Vatican scheduled a memorial Mass for today outside St. Peter's Basilica and said the pope's body would be taken into the vast church no earlier than Monday. The College of Cardinals, comprising the church's red-robed "princes," is to meet Monday to set a funeral date.
Most popes in recent centuries have asked to be buried in the crypts below the basilica, but the Vatican declined to say whether the pope had left instructions. Some have suggested that the first Polish-born pontiff might have chosen to be laid to rest in his native country.
John Paul's death ended the third-longest papacy in the church's 2,000-year history. Knowing it was near, cardinals from around the world had already begun converging on Rome. They are to gather at the Vatican for a secret conclave to choose his successor, almost certainly from among their own ranks.
The election is likely to be contentious. John Paul's pivotal role in toppling communism in Eastern Europe, his humanist evangelizing and his outreach to other faiths made him visible and enormously popular around the world. But his deeply conservative stamp on the church, his intolerance of dissent on Catholic doctrine and his determination to centralize authority in the Vatican left his following divided.
That rift reaches into the ranks of cardinals, even though John Paul appointed all but three of the 117 eligible to vote. A dozen or more cardinals have been mentioned as successors, but there is no clear favorite.
The agony of John Paul's decline and the mourning of his passing appeared to unite Catholics. As the death bulletin spread, St. Peter's Square filled quickly. The crowd was hushed, many people red-eyed or weeping openly. Parents pushed strollers and carried children on their shoulders. Young women with nose rings stood shoulder to shoulder with elderly nuns.
"My heart is so full, to be here ... at the hour of the pope's death, the death of this great man," said Frank Rossitto, a retired university professor who lives in Rome. "How many times over the years I stood in this place to watch him celebrate a Mass, for Christmas, for Easter. Now there is such a void."
Karol Wojtyla was a robust 58 when the last papal conclave surprised the world in 1978 and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope chosen in 456 years. He soon became the most traveled pope in history.
By the turn of the millennium, John Paul had become a picture of frailty. He had survived a 1981 assassination attempt, when a Turkish gunman shot him in the abdomen, and struggled with hip and knee ailments. In his final years, he used his declining health as a public testament to the value of life and the redemptive possibilities of death.
His body shut down gradually. The once-athletic frame became stooped and rigid; the once-booming voice fell silent. As his activities were curtailed, he refused to resign, vowing to continue on St. Peter's throne "until the last breath."
By letting the world see his deterioration, the pope made it clear that he wanted to show the nobility of death. Although the sight of his twitching, drooling and efforts to speak sometimes bordered on the macabre, he sought to show sacrifice, humility and the courage of Christ.
The pope's condition was exacerbated by Parkinson's, a neurological disease that causes the muscles to deteriorate and inhibits movement. It evidently impaired the pope's ability to swallow and to take deep breaths that can clear the lungs.