Tense wait inside the Vatican as the Pope is 'read the last rites'

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The Pope was last night given the last rites, Italian media reported, after a dramatic worsening of his health.

The Pope was last night given the last rites, Italian media reported, after a dramatic worsening of his health.

His condition today was described as very grave following septic shock and heart failure overnight.

A Vatican statement said last night that Pope John Paul II, 84, was suffering from a very high fever after contracting an infection of the urinary tract. It was also reported that he had experienced a steep drop in his blood pressure.

The Vatican added that "an appropriate antibiotic therapy has begun" and that "the clinical situation is being closely watched by the Vatican medical team treating him".

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said this morning: "I would want everyone to join with me in prayers for him as he very bravely meets his last hours and days with serenity, calm and peace and for all that we give thanks to God.

"The last I have heard is that the Pope is serene and calm and he doesn't wish to go back to hospital, he wants to remain in the Vatican where he will stay to the end."

He said there would be prayers in Westminster Cathedral and a mass later in the day for the pontiff. He added: "Pope John Paul has been very ill and frail for a long time. The news that he is very serious is not a surprise."

He said it was not yet time to look to the future and he was praying for the Pope, who had led an "extraordinary and wonderful life".

He said he had been "a moral voice" for the whole world, adding: "The papacy and what it represents has had a more significant role in the world than it ever has before."

The Pope has been suffering from Parkinson's disease for more than a decade. The present crisis dates back to 1 February when he was hospitalised with flu. He was discharged 10 days later but soon re-admitted after suffering a relapse. In hospital he underwent a tracheotomy, having a tube inserted into his throat to help him to breathe.

Since then he has only uttered a few words in public, and on his most recent appearances, apparently wracked by pain, he tried to speak but failed to produce intelligible words. After another agonised appearance at his apartment window above St Peter's on Wednesday, the Vatican announced that he would now be fed by a tube through his nose. There was also talk of a possible permanent feeding tube directly into his stomach - an operation that would require the Pope's return to hospital.

All such speculation was put on hold last night, however, as the Pope's health took what to many observers appeared to be a critical - and perhaps final - turn for the worse.

Senior cardinals and others high up in the Vatican were yesterday preparing the world's one billion Roman Catholics for the worst. Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, once considered a strong candidate to be the next pope, said that John Paul II was "approaching, as far as a person can tell, the end of his life". A priest working inside the Vatican told Reuters news agency: "We are on stand-by for anything. Hardly anyone thinks the situation will improve, but everyone is hoping for a miracle."