By Liz Sly and Tom Hundley: Chicago Tribune
VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II, the man who led the Catholic church for a generation with vision, drive and charisma, died Saturday, bringing an end to his prolonged personal suffering and to a historic era for the world.
In a brief statement issued 15 minutes after his death, the Vatican announced that the 84-year-old pope had passed away at 9:37 p.m. local time, in the apartment that became his home in 1978 when the Polish archbishop named Karol Wojtyla was elected the 265th pope.
Moments before his death, he lifted his right hand in a weak gesture of benediction, an apparent acknowledgement of a chorus of “Amens” rising from the thousands of people gathered below his window, Vatican Television reported.
Then he died, far from his homeland but surrounded by the Polish aides and confidants who had remained his closest friends throughout his 26-year papacy, including his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.
When it finally came, the news was no surprise: The world’s 1 billion Catholics and many others had been bracing for the pope’s death since Friday, when his already fading health began to deteriorate rapidly.
Yet when Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican’s undersecretary of state, announced the death to the thousands keeping vigil in St. Peter’s Square, there was a stunned silence. “Our Holy Father John Paul has returned home,” Sandri announced.
Then one by one, the crowd started to clap, in a gesture of spontaneous appreciation for the lifetime and the legacy of the man who had meant so much to so many people.
“He lived in everyone’s heart and now he is gone,” said Arianna Delmonico, her eyes welling with tears, as she arrived in the square from Naples moments after the death was announced.
“This is one of those moments that shakes the world,” said Ilona Laurus, 50, a tourist from Germany who has spent the past three days in the square.
Attention now will turn to the pope’s funeral and the preparations for selecting a new pope. No immediate plans were announced for the funeral, but the Vatican said his body would be taken to St. Peter’s Basilica no earlier than Monday afternoon.
In death as in life, the pope was an inspiration, stirring those who watched and waited as his life ebbed. Throughout his final hours, the pope remained cogent, registering the presence of his aides as he drifted in and out of consciousness, the Vatican said.
He somehow managed to convey a final, deathbed message to the faithful, which aides said they “reconstructed,” apparently from his faint words.
His spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, quoted him as saying: “You have come to me and for this I thank you,” suggesting the pope knew that tens of thousands of people had gathered beneath his window to pray for his soul.
Though he tried several times, the pope had not spoken publicly since he was released from the hospital March 13, after undergoing a tracheostomy that allowed him to breathe. He had been hospitalized twice since the beginning of the year and also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
In the final bulletin on his condition, issued a little less than three hours before his death, Navarro-Valls described the pope’s condition as “very serious” though the pontiff remained conscious. “When addressed by members of his household, he responds correctly,” the bulletin said.
An hour later, it was clear the pope was dying. At 8 p.m, his closest aides and confidants, all of them Polish, began celebrating the Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday, a day of special significance to the pope because it commemorates the Polish St. Faustina.
They also repeated the Viaticum, the communion given to the dying; and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, according to a brief account of events issued by the Vatican.
In attendance at his deathbed were Dziwisz; another personal secretary, Monsignor Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki; Cardinal Marian Jaworski; Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko; and the Rev. Tadeusz Styczen. There were also three nuns, headed by Sister Tobiana Sobodka, as well as three doctors and two nurses, the Vatican said.
The moment of death set in motion a carefully choreographed series of rituals that dates to the papacy’s earliest days.
None of the Vatican’s most senior officials was present when the pope died. But as soon as he had passed, they were summoned to his bedside, including Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state; Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, the chamberlain or camerlengo of the Catholic church; and Sandri.
They later were joined by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who as dean of the College of Cardinals will preside over the selection of the next pope, and Cardinal Josef Tomko, another top official, the Vatican said.
In accordance with tradition, Somalo, the chamberlain, would have called out the pope’s given name — Karol — three times to ascertain that the pope had passed from this life.
Somalo would then have drawn a veil over the pope’s face — again to assure that there were no signs of life — before formally proclaiming in ritual fashion, “The pope is dead.”
Next, Somalo would have been obliged to remove the pescatoria, the “ring of the Fisherman” that symbolizes papal authority, and to smash it with a silver hammer, officially ending John Paul’s pontificate. A new ring will be given to his successor.
As news of the pope’s death spread, cardinals from across the globe prepared to travel to Rome, where they will participate in the process of choosing the next pope.
Most were expected to arrive by Monday, when the General Congregation of Cardinals will hold its first meeting. The General Congregation groups all the living cardinals, including those too old to participate in the conclave that will choose the next pope.
That conclave will not begin until at least nine days after the pope’s funeral.
Another immediate priority will be to empty the papal apartment of John Paul II’s personal effects and papers. His personal aides will be required to move out, and the rooms then will be sealed to await the next occupant.
Many of the Vatican officials who served in John Paul II’s administration will lose their jobs. Those who will remain include Somalo, whose job is to run the Vatican between popes, and Sandri, who will be responsible for the church’s daily business until a new pope is chosen.
For the crowds who lingered in St. Peter’s Square long after the pope’s death had been announced, this was a time to mourn the last pope, not to think about the next one.
The sea of humanity was lit by the lights of a thousand television cameras. Some pilgrims knelt in silent prayer; others prayed noisily, almost joyously. In a way, this seemed to capture John Paul II’s uncanny knack for being all things to all people, a man claimed by conservatives and liberals, old and young, Catholics and non-Catholics.
“Look around you. Half the people here are under 30. This is the only pope they have known,” said Luca Siciliano, 28, who had brought a lawn chair and sleeping bag to wait out the pope’s final hours.
“There are people who have a bone to pick with the Catholic Church as an institution, but who are totally devoted to the pope. It’s the majesty of the papacy.”
Many nationalities were represented, most from places the pope had visited.
There was Sami Basha, a university professor from Nazareth, Israel, who came “to say thank you for helping the Palestinian people,” he said.
And there was a 48-year old man with single name, Anata, dressed in the saffron robes of the Hare Krishna sect, who said that the pope was a man of God, no matter whose.
“The aim of religion should be to minimize these differences, and I think that’s what he stood for,” said Anata.
But most of those present were Italians, a reminder of the extent to which Italy had embraced the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. At first many Italians had expressed skepticism about the appointment, but they quickly grew to love the man they knew as “Papa.”
Their affection was captured by the simple valedictory blazoned across the front page of Italy’s Il Tempo newspaper: