The Pope is dead

Vatican announces: 'Our Holy Father has returned to the house of the Father'
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The Independent Online

Born: 18 May 1920
Died: 2 April 2005

Born: 18 May 1920
Died: 2 April 2005

John Paul II, the Pope who, for all his conservative views, captured the hearts and imaginations of people of all faiths and none, died yesterday evening, the Vatican announced. He was 84.

The man who headed the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years, died at 9.37pm Italian time in his private apartment, a statement said. The first news, grimly expected since Thursday evening, flashed by text messages to the wire services. It was then relayed by Bruno Vespa, an Italian television talk show host on Italian radio. Ansa, the Italian wire service, dispatched it around the world, and at 9.50pm the stark announcement by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri ­ "The Pope is dead" ­ rolled around St Peter's Square.

At the moment of his death, pilgrims were slowly ebbing out of St Peter's Basilica after prayers for the mortally ill pontiff. The huge crowd stood stock still, utterly silent. The traditional signs people had been looking for, the closing of the shutters of the Pope's bedroom, the tolling of the Basilica's bell, had been bypassed in favour of the brute efficiency of the electronic media. Then, through the loudspeakers, priests recited the "Salva Regina", the ancient prayer that is said on these occasions.

Slowly the dire message sank in. The world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics were plunged into mourning.

The death of the Polish Pope, born Karol Wojtyla, aged 84, came some 50 hours after the crisis he suffered on Thursday evening which led to the frank admission by the Vatican that he was close to death. Since then crowds of people, young and old, devout and otherwise, had filled St Peter's Square.

Millions more of the faithful around the world had for the past weeks, and especially the past few days, been praying for a man already being dubbed by some Catholics "John Paul the Great" who will be remembered for his role in the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe and his unyielding defence of traditional Vatican doctrines.

His death brings to a close one of the most media-observed deathbed scenes in history. The Pope's health had deteriorated steadily over the past decade and earlier this year took a sharp turn for the worse. The pontiff, once a lithe athlete and powerful speaker, was already racked by arthritis and Parkinson's disease, his voice often reduced to a raspy whisper.

He was rushed to hospital twice in February and had to have a tracheotomy to ease serious breathing problems. But he never regained strength from the operation and failed on two occasions to address crowds in St Peter's Square.

On Wednesday doctors inserted a feeding tube into his stomach to try to boost his energy levels. A day later he developed a urinary tract infection and high fever that soon precipitated heart failure, kidney problems and, ultimately, death. According to church rules, the pontiff's mourning rites will last for nine days and his body is likely to be laid to rest in the crypt underneath St Peter's Basilica.

The conclave to elect a new Pope will start in 15 to 20 days' time, almost 120 cardinals from around the world gathering in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel to choose a successor. There is no outright favourite. Karol Wojtyla was himself regarded as an outsider when he was elevated to the papacy on 16 October 1978.

Few then would have predicted that the first non-Italian Pope for 455 years would throw off the stiff trappings of the papacy, travel the globe and leave an indelible mark on history. He was both a champion of the downtrodden and a defender of orthodoxy within his own church.

One of the Pope's most lasting legacies will be his role in the fall of Communism in eastern Europe in 1989. "Behold the night is over, day has dawned anew," the Pope said during a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990. He visited the Holy Land in March 2000, and asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.

Critics attacked his traditionalist stance on family issues, such as his condemnation of contraception and homosexuality, and hope for a more liberal pontiff. However, John Paul II appointed most of the cardinals who will elect his successor, thus stacking the odds in favour of his often controversial doctrine.