The fading of the light

Pope John Paul II's life draws to a close
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The Independent Online

It was a day that seemed to drift towards an inevitable conclusion, although no one knew when the final moment would come. Throughout the morning and afternoon, sad pilgrims leaned against the stone bollards around the central obelisk in St Peter's Square.

It was a day that seemed to drift towards an inevitable conclusion, although no one knew when the final moment would come. Throughout the morning and afternoon, sad pilgrims leaned against the stone bollards around the central obelisk in St Peter's Square.

Some read newspapers intermittently. Others merely stared upwards in the direction of the top floor windows of the papal apartments. Few were obviously praying; most looked blank, exhausted. Many had been in the piazza for hours. And the news got worse and worse.

The first medical bulletin of the day, released by the Vatican press office at 6.30am, confirmed the gravity of Pope John Paul II's condition that the world learnt about late on Thursday night: an infection of the urinary tract had provoked a dramatic drop in his blood pressure.

As Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman who is also a medical doctor, put it in his statement: "Septic shock set in with cardio-circulatory collapse." Yet the Pope remained "conscious and serene", in the Vatican's words.

Journalists who had gathered in a swarm at the Vatican had to wait another six hours for an update. At that point, there was little new to add. The Pope remained conscious, he had asked for scriptures to be read to him, he was still "serene", indeed "extraordinarily serene". But there was no pretending that he had taken a turn for the better. His "biological parameters" remained volatile. His blood pressure was unstable. Anything could happen.

Just after 6pm, the pace of the Pope's decline suddenly accelerated. Hushed groups on the piazza began to brace themselves for the news that none of them wanted to hear.

In another communiqué, it was announced that the Pope's condition was "notably compromised". His breathing had become shallow. Soon afterwards, the growing crowd learnt from Italian television that the Pope had lost consciousness. At 7.25, it was reported that the Pontiff's electrocardiogram was flat.

"He's a huge pope, a great pope," said Enrico Troya, staring up at the windows. "He tried to have a relationship with all the people in the world. The fact he refused to go back to hospital proves it. He wanted to be close to the people right up to the end. The next one will have a huge responsibility to carry on his work. I can't imagine a pope who could take up his legacy, his dialogue with other religions, with the whole world."

Elsewhere on the piazza, two nuns from Madagascar gazed solemnly up at the windows. "We came to pray for the Pope for half an hour before going to school," said Sister Celestina, who was born only four years before Pope John Paul was elected in 1978. "He's a very strong man, he has great faith and the ability to awaken the faith in others."

"He's very generous, very warm" said Sister Anna Maria.

"I met him once," said Rocco Debellis, a 43-year-old soldier. "I came here to St Peter's with the other soldiers in my unit. I've taken the day off to be here. More than anyone else alive he's left his mark on the world, certainly more than any politician or government. He's a tough man, no mistake about that. I can't find any fault in him. I came here to wait for a sign from him."

By the crash barriers at the edge of the piazza, just across the border of the tiny Vatican city-state, a long line of technicians focused their television cameras on the second window from the right of the papal apartment. If and when the Pope dies, the papal bedroom window will be closed, and the bell high up on the front of St Peter's basilica will toll.

The Pope has been unwell for years; on numerous occasions since the assassination attempt on him in 1981 there have been fears that he might die. But it had never been like this before.

"For 14 years, off and on, colleagues have been asking me if I thought he was going to go," said a veteran Vatican watcher working at Vatican Radio. "I never thought he was until today. Today for the first time ..."

As the moment of the Pope's passing approached, a weird unreality descended on Vatican City. The death watch began on 1 February when John Paul was rushed to hospital in the middle of the night, unable to breathe. That, too, looked like it might be the end; instead it was merely the beginning of his personal Calvary.

However, although he was crippled and slowed and swollen by Parkinson's disease, from which he has been suffering for 13 years, until that hospitalisation the Pope was always focused outwards. On his work as pontiff, on the Church's duties in the world, on the relationships with other faiths, on the opportunities to exert political pressure.

He spoke less and less and, when he did, it was hard to make out the words.

In the past few weeks, instead of spoken words there were merely mute images of agony as he appeared at his window, opened his mouth to speak and failed, put his hands to his head and pounded a shelf in frustration..

Yesterday, nobody at the Vatican doubted that Karol Wojtyla was on the last stretch. You even heard the hope candidly expressed that this final stretch would not drag on and on. "His mission is done". That's how people who love him put it.

WORLD REACTION

* Poland: Lech Walesa, the former leader of the Solidarity movement, led a worldwide chorus of praise for his compatriot. He said the Pope had played a key role in bringing down communism and that Poland still needed its native son as it faced up to a difficult future.

"Fifty per cent of the collapse of communism is his doing. He came and said 'Let God change the face of the Earth, this Earth'. More than one year after he spoke these words, we were able to organise 10 million people for strikes, protests and negotiations."

* United States: The White House described the Pope as "an inspiration for millions of Americans" and said President George Bush, who has met the Pope twice at the Vatican, had prayed for him. "The outpouring of love across the world is a testimony to the greatness of the Pope," a White House spokesman said.

* Africa: Thousands of Catholics joined prayersamid the hubbubin cities such as Lagos and Kinshasa. "He was the first Pope to have brought together Muslims, Hindus and worshippers of other religions," said Flavien Kiope, a teacher in Kinshasa.

* Middle East: Muslims, from leading clerics to anti-Western protesters, joined Christians in support for John Paul II - the first Pope to enter a mosque. He was held in great respect after his efforts at dialogue with Islam.

* Russia: The leader of the Roman Catholics, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, celebrated Mass in central Moscow, attended by dozens, including many non-Catholics.

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