Saturday, April 02, 2005

Pope on deathbed as millions of Catholics hold World vigil

The Pope asked not to return to hospital for treatmentPope John Paul neared death last night as his health suddenly worsened, drawing anguished prayers from Catholics around the world – including Gibraltar – reluctant to accept his historic pontificate was near its end.

The Vatican said the 84-year-old Pontiff’s breathing became shallow and his blood pressure had dropped dangerously low. But it denied Italian media reports that he had died.

Sky Italia TV, quoting a report from Italy’s Apcom news agency, said the Pope had lost consciousness. “There’s no hope any more,” the ANSA news agency quoted an unidentified medical source as saying.

Church officials prepared the world and its 1.1 billion Roman Catholics for the end of the third longest papal reign in history — more than 26 years.

“The general conditions and cardio-respiratory conditions of the Holy Father have further worsened,” said Vatican spokesman Spaniard Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

“A gradual worsening of arterial hypotension has been noted, and breathing has become shallow. The clinical picture indicates cardio-circulatory and renal insufficiency. The biological parameters are notably compromised,” Navarro-Valls said.

Rome Cardinal Camillo Ruini told a mass at the city’s San Giovanni church that the Pope, who received the blessing for the dying after his health suddenly deteriorated overnight, “already sees and touches the Lord. He is already united with our sole Saviour.”

Catholics flocked to churches to light candles and pray for the Polish churchman who became Pope in 1978 and revitalised the papacy. Groups of faithful gathered in the Vatican’s vast St. Peter’s Square, some gazing up at the papal apartments.

Cardinals Summoned

Cardinals were summoned to the Pope’s bedside to say their farewells in person.

Navarro-Valls earlier on Friday fought back tears when he told reporters the Pontiff had celebrated Mass from his bed as dawn broke.

After weeks of worsening health, the Pope developed a high fever on Thursday caused by a urinary infection.

Poles clung to the hope their beloved countryman and moral authority would step back from the brink of death.

“I came to pray for the Pope,” said Maria Danecka, one of hundreds who crowded in and around the basilica in Wadowice, a southern city where Karol Wojtyla was born in 1920. Many of them wept.

“If he were to leave us, we won’t have anybody to show us the way, to help us understand the world.”

Churches in the capital Warsaw and the southern city of Krakow where Wojtyla was archbishop filled with worshippers.

The Pope told aides he did not want to return to hospital, where he spent several weeks before Easter after breathing trouble.

Pope “serene”

“The fact he has not gone back (shows) he is serenely carrying the cross and ready to give up and to say ‘It is finished’,” said his former private secretary, Irish bishop John Magee.

Recent images of a gaunt, pained John Paul, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s disease and arthritis, contrast starkly with the sprightly Wojtyla who strode onto the world stage on Oct. 16, 1978, and travelled the globe tirelessly to preach the Gospels.

The Pope came close to death before when a Turkish gunman shot him during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. He believes divine intervention saved him from death.

After a pope dies, cardinals from around the world are called to Rome to chose a successor at a conclave which starts in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel 15 to 20 days after the death.

There is no favourite candidate to take over as head of the Church, and Wojtyla himself was seen as an outsider before he was elected.

Some churchmen believe the developing world should provide the next pope as that is where the religion is most vibrant.

Catholics across Africa, the Church’s fastest-growing region, drew strength from the Pope’s endurance amid their own struggle for survival on the world’s poorest continent.

“It is very difficult for him as a leader to go through this. Yet he has not given up and this gives us courage to bear our own burdens,” said Eleanora Kazadi, 40, a bookseller at a packed Mass in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

“We are all very sad about his failing health,” said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines, where four out of five people are Catholics.

Sombre Italy

Underscoring the somber mood, Italian political parties halted campaigning for regional elections this weekend and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi cancelled all appointments.

The Pope has grown steadily weaker over the past decade. He has been seriously ill for most of the past two months and failed to recover from recent throat surgery aimed at helping him breathe.

He has been unable to speak in public since he left hospital on March 13, with a tube to help him breathe in his windpipe.

Historians say one of his legacies will remain his role in the fall of communism in Europe in 1989.

His orthodox line on many Church teachings has won favour among poor-country Catholics but criticism from liberal believers in developed countries for his proclamations against contraception, abortion, married priests and women clergy.

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