As Poles mourn their famous son, young Italians remember their Holy Father

In the town where he was born and in the city where he died, bells tolled and the faithful gathered to mark the passing of the pontiff
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The sundial on the wall of the Polish Church where Pope John Paul II was baptised said it all last night: "Eternity Awaits". As the Vatican confirmed the death of John Paul II, his hometown of Wadowice remembered its most famous son and, like the rest of his native Poland, began the painful process of mourning.

The sundial on the wall of the Polish Church where Pope John Paul II was baptised said it all last night: "Eternity Awaits". As the Vatican confirmed the death of John Paul II, his hometown of Wadowice remembered its most famous son and, like the rest of his native Poland, began the painful process of mourning.

The sound of bells tolling filled the misty night air. Hundreds of sombre townspeople gathered outside what used to be his local church beneath an eerie carpet of fog. The town has enormous symbolic importance for Poles. Karol Wojtyla, later to become the Pope, was born here on 18 May 1920, grew up here, went to school here and drew inspiration from the town's onion-domed church which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A colour portrait of the Pope hung above the church's threshold last night.

Unlike the frail images of the man who recently struggled to give an Easter blessing, the portrait depicts the man in his prime. Striding purposefully into the future, he was pictured blessing an invisible crowd touching his sceptre. Nearby other images of him in life gaze down at the bereaved pilgrims. John Paul II as a baby, as a boy, as a priest and finally as a Pope.

Wadowice's church was under siege last night. The crowd spilled on to the square straining to hear the hymns and prayers coming from inside as the bells tolled, signalling the end of his 26-year papacy. At times a priest's voice could be heard from inside extolling the Pope's virtues and explaining what he had given Wadowice, Poland and the world. At number seven Church Street, the single-storey house where he was born, an impromptu shrine sprang up. In the corner of its small courtyard a little girl wearing a bobble hat lit a candle and said a silent prayer as she knelt down. Night lights flickered in the darkness as a steady stream of pilgrims came to lay fresh flowers and candles. Inside the church it was standing room only.

People prayed for the Pope's soul beneath dramatic ceiling frescos of biblical scenes and the huge oil painting depicting the crucifixion. Outside a schoolgirl choir dressed in old-fashioned green and white frocks intoned religious chants. Beata, a therapist, was one of hundreds who said she felt drawn to the church. "I want to be with the Pope. This is a very special place, his heart is here and I want to be here too," she said, minutes before his death was confirmed. Nearby an old lady from an outlying village struggled to fight back the tears as she remembered seeing him visit the church in years gone by.

The bells were tolling, too, in Rome, as the news of Pope John Paul II's death was announced to the thousands waiting in St Peter's Square by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri. "Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father," they were told. The crowd went completely silent. Then, in an Italian tradition to show appreciation for important figures who have passed away, they started to clap. Many wept.

A group of youths began to sing, "Alleluia, he will rise again," while one of them strummed a guitar. Others resumed reciting the rosary, some held Polish flags. Bells tolled at the Vatican to mourn the pontiff's passing.

Many of the young people packing the square do not go to church. They may not even believe in God, and it is highly unlikely that they observe John Paul II's stipulations about birth control. But they were there "to render homage to the pontiff", as a student in shades and a "Mind the Gap" T-shirt put it, with quaint formality.

High up in his room on the top floor of the pontifical palace overlooking the piazza, the Pope had lain gravely ill all day. The bulletins from his press spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, drew a picture of a man whose life was slowly ebbing away, who was slipping in and out of consciousness, attending a mass in his room yesterday morning but not "participating" in it as he had on Friday, by making the sign of the cross.

Despite his extreme frailty, continuing low blood pressure, and shallow breathing, the Great Communicator had been able to get a message out, the last in his life. His attendants pieced the words together yesterday morning and they were addressed, Dr Navarro-Valls said, to the young people in the square. "I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you."

It was a paradox, this thing about the Pope and youth. Here was this intensely conservative figure, who has had Catholicism's liberals grinding their teeth down to the stumps for more than two decades with his hard line on women in the church, homosexuals, right-to-choose issues and much else. Here is a man who has undone much of the work of the Second Vatican Council in bringing the church into alignment with the modern European spirit, and who would probably abolish the Renaissance and the Enlightenment if he could. But young people, even those with no strong faith, felt a deep affinity. They have known no other Pope, have no other image in their minds of the head of the Catholic church than Karol Wojtyla.

"I don't think of him as a conservative," said Alessandro de Marinis, a 24-year-old student. "He was a great innovator in the relations of church and society. He apologised to other faiths for the bad things others before him had done. He fought against every ideological extreme. He was always for peace and freedom. And he's the only Pope we've known."

As John Paul II's agony drew to a close, the vigil in the piazza changed from being a small, personal affair to a huge and permanent gathering. From Friday lunchtime the crowds began to pour in, and kept coming all day and into the night. Last night they were there in their thousands. but the loudest noise in the piazza was from the fountains. Rome seized its last opportunity to commune with one of the least Roman popes in history.

Yesterday choirs sprang up spontaneously in different parts of the piazza. One group spread out a poster on the cobbles facing the Pope's window for the forthcoming International Youth Day, the annual event that he invented in 2000, and spelled out in candles the words "con te" ("with you"). A group of Polish women spread a large Polish flag on the cobbles and sang hymns and read prayers behind it.

Messages were scribbled across the flag. "I grew up with you," said one in Italian. "I love you. Please keep praying to the Lord for us and for the faith of the world."

Another in English said, "Just like my mum is the only mother I've known, you are the only Pope I've ever known. No one could ever replace you. Find peace."

'He saved my life ­ with tea, bread and cheese'

Holocaust survivor Edith Zierer, 74, will always remember the kindness of Karol Wojtyla, who saved her life. Zierer was 13 when she ran away from Czestochowa Nazi camp in Poland in January 1945. Hoping to find her family, who she later learned were dead, she reached a station and waited for two days.

"Suddenly, there he was," Zierer said. "He brought me tea and two pieces of bread with cheese. We came to Krakow and then I ran away because people started to ask why a priest was walking with a Jewish girl."

Zierer emigrated, married and had children in Israel. She wrote to the new Pope in 1979, a correspondence ensued, and the pontiff invited her to the Vatican in 1998. "I received a letter from him last year and I knew it was the last," she said. "He included a picture from his private collection. I wrote to thank him for the memory that never left."

By Genevieve Roberts