Vatican City Pope John Paul II was near death as dawn approached today, his breathing shallow and his heart and kidneys failing, the Vatican said. Millions of faithful around the world paid homage, many weeping as they knelt with bowed heads, others carrying candles in prayer for the 84-year-old pontiff.
The pope "is on the verge of death," Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Vatican's health care office, told the Mexican television network Televisa. "I talked to the doctors and they told me there is no more hope."
Addressing the crowd at St. Peter's Square, where as many as 70,000 people prayed and stood vigil in the chilly night, Angelo Comastri, the pope's vicar general for Vatican City, said "This evening or this night, Christ opens the door to the pope,"
At times the huge gathering fell so silent the sound of the square's trickling fountains was audible. At other points, the crowd sang, "Stay with us!" But as dawn approached, the numbers in the sprawling plaza diminished. Many of those who stayed wrapped themselves in blankets and gazed tearfully at John Paul's third-floor windows, where the lights remained in the pope's studio and his secretary's room. The papal bedroom was not lit.
Around the world, priests readied Roman Catholics for John Paul's passing. Many expressed hope that his final hours would be peaceful.
"Now he prepares to meet the Lord," Cardinal Francis George said at a Mass in Chicago. "As the portals of death open for him, as they will for each of us ... we must accompany him with our own prayers."
Newspapers in Italy devoted most of today's editions to the suffering of the Polish pope, whose given name is Karol Wojtyla. Il Tempo showed a photo of the white-clad pontiff with his back turned to the camera, with the headline, "Ciao, Karol."
The Il Secolo XIX newspaper of Genoa reported that the pope, with the help of his private secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, wrote a note to his aides urging them not to weep for him.
"I am happy, and you should be as well," the note reportedly said. "Let us pray together with joy."
The Vatican said Friday morning that John Paul was in "very grave" condition after suffering blood poisoning from a urinary tract infection the previous night, but that he was "fully conscious and extraordinarily serene." The pope was being treated by the Vatican medical team and declined to be hospitalized.
By Friday night, the pope's condition had worsened further, and he was suffering from kidney failure and shortness of breath but had not lost consciousness as of 9:30 p.m., the Vatican said.
As word of his condition spread across the globe, special Masses celebrated the pope for transforming the Roman Catholic Church during his 26-year papacy and for his example in fearlessly confronting death.
In Wadowice, Poland, people left school and work early and headed to church to pray for their native son.
"I want him to hold on, but it is all in God's hands now," said 64-year-old Elzbieta Galuszko at the church where the pope was baptized. "We can only pray for him so he can pull through these difficult moments."
In the Philippines, tears streamed down the face of Linda Nicol as she and her husband asked God to grant John Paul "a longer life."
At the Church of the Assumption in Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's most populous city of over 13 million, about 200 Nigerians in Western clothes and bright traditional African robes sat on wooden benches, offering prayers for the pope at a midday Mass.
In Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he had heard from Rome that the pope was "sinking." McCarrick said he prayed that God will "take him peacefully."
The White House said President Bush and his wife were praying for the pope and that the world's concern was "a testimony to his greatness."
Karol Wojtyla became a priest in 1946, just as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, and the inspiration he provided as Pope John Paul II helped to tear it down.
"Fifty percent of the collapse of communism is his doing," Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement that toppled communism in Poland in 1989-90, told The Associated Press on Friday. Without the pope's leadership, "communism would have fallen, but much later and in a bloody way," he said.