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Pope John Paul II is dead

Vatican City, April 2
Pope John Paul II died today after a long struggle against crippling infirmity which inspired Christians the world over, ending a tumultuous 26-year reign that shaped world politics and plunging 1.1 billion Roman Catholics into mourning.

The 84-year-old pontiff died at 9:37 pm (0107 IST), according to a Vatican statement, two days after suffering heart failure brought on by two months of acute breathing problems and other infections.

“The Holy Father died this evening at 21:37 in his private apartment,” said a brief statement released by the Holy See.

“All the procedures forseen by the Apostolic Constitution ‘Universi Dominici Gregis’ promulgated by John Paul II on 22 February 1996 have been set in motion,” it concluded.

News of his death touched not only Catholics from his native Poland to the Americas, from Africa to Asia, but untold numbers of other admirers of one of the most popular and recognizable popes in history.

During his pontificate — the third longest in 2,000 years of Christianity — he was a master at reaching the masses through the media, displaying public relations skills unknown to his predecessors while at home at the Vatican, as well as on his visits to 129 countries.

But, after he was rushed to hospital on February 1 with breathing problems, his final illness silenced the voice which had given hope to millions living under oppression while frustrating those who rejected his deeply conservative moral views.

In one of the most poignant moments of his pontificate, he was unable to give his traditional message to worshippers in Saint Peter’s Square outside the Vatican on Easter Sunday and could barely raise his hand in silent blessing.

After that, his health worsened quickly. A few days later he was given the Viaticum, popularly known as the last rites.

His health continued to deteriorate. He slipped in and out of consciousness and his heart weakened. His blood pressure fell, but Vatican officials said he remained “serene” accepting his fate.

The first non-Italian pope in four-and-a-half centuries, and the first ever from eastern Europe, Karol Wojtyla was the 263rd successor to Saint Peter as Bishop of Rome.

A warm and earthy figure, he was immensely popular, imposing his own style and agenda on the papacy, eschewing the pomp that surrounded his forebears and seeking contact with ordinary people.

Born in a small town near Krakow, in southern Poland, the son of an army officer, on May 18, 1920, he was brought up by his father after the death of his mother when he was eight. His elder brother, a doctor, died in 1932 during an outbreak of scarlet fever.

He became a parish priest and rose steadily through the Church hierarchy until, as Bishop of Krakow, he became widely known to Western ecclesiastical authorities during the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.

When Cardinal Wojtyla was elected Pope in October 1978, he was 58, a robust sportsman and a relative outsider amid the vast bureaucracy of the Holy See.

The advent of a Polish Pope provided an immeasurable boost to his countrymen, and the upshot was a reinvigorated anti-communist working class movement, the birth of the Communist bloc’s first independent trade union, Solidarity, and the steady thaw of the Communist glacier that lay over eastern Europe.

Perhaps his finest hour came when he stood before fellow Poles in 1979 and said “Do not be afraid”, prompting millions to rally to the cause of Lech Walesa whose “Solidarnosc” movement was fighting to end Communist rule in Poland.

In 1981 the Pope was nearly killed in an assassination attempt by rightwing Turkish fanatic Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot him at close range in Saint Peter’s Square. He survived after extensive surgery, but his health was badly affected thereafter.

At the same time, Church reformers, the young, and Third World congregations in the grip of a devastating AIDS epidemic became dismayed at his refusal to give ground on contraception and the use of condoms.

“For the Catholic Church, this pontificate, despite its positive aspects, has really been a disaster,” said Swiss theologian Hans Kung in 2003.

“Many women have turned away from the Church because of the pope’s position on contraception and the ordination of women,” he added.

In the US, high-profile scandals involving several pedophile priests shook the foundations of the Catholic Church until the Vatican belatedly sanctioned a policy of “zero tolerance” toward such behaviour.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement earlier in the day that the pope had begun moving in and out of consciousness at dawn.

“When spoken to, he opened his eyes and remained conscious. At times it seemed he was sleeping or that he was resting his eyes.”

Beside the Polish-born Pope’s death bed were some of his closest aides — private secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz, three Polish nuns, Dziwisz’s assistant, and the Pontiff’s personal doctor Renato Buzzonetti.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of the most senior Vatican cardinals, said after visiting the Pope early on Saturday that he knew that he was dying and said his last goodbye. — AFPBack


Rome gears up for Pope’s funeral

Faithful at the St Peter’s square in the Vatican City, moments before Pope John Paul Il died
Faithful at the St Peter’s square in the Vatican City, moments before Pope John Paul Il died.
— AFP photo

Vatican City, April 2
Preparations got underway today for the elaborate rituals following the Pope’s death, with officials gearing up to accommodate tens of thousands of pilgrims who were expected to converge on Rome.

Workmen in cherry-pickers began dismantling the canopy on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica. One workman told the Associated Press that the space had to be cleared for the Pope’s funeral.

The city of Rome, meanwhile, began making plans to house the tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to flock to the city over the coming days.

Portable toilets and extra ambulances appeared in greater numbers near the Vatican today and the city transport system said it was increasing service on bus and subway lines which stop at St Peter’s Square.

City officials also lined up fairground pavilions and sport stadiums to house the faithful, and the Italian state railway said it would add additional trains to bring the faithful direct to Rome.

In Vatican City, the Vatican post office announced that it would issue a special stamp in memory of the Pope which can only be used until a new one is elected. According to tradition, the “vacant See” stamp will carry an image of two crossed keys but no papal headgear.

In St Peter’s itself today, the round-the-clock vigil that began on Thursday evening to pray for John Paul intensified, with more than 25,000 people massing before a scheduled 9 p.m. (0030 IST) recitation of the rosary.

Dawn broke over the piazza with a few hundred pilgrims who had stayed the night huddled in sleeping bags following a candlelit vigil Friday night that drew some 70,000 people.

While the day was unusual, Vatican business continued: the Vatican pharmacy and post office were open, and souvenir kiosks did business selling postcards, newspapers and religious trinkets.

Swiss Guards stood guard at the basilica and tour groups traipsed through the piazza with guides pointing their umbrellas up at John Paul’s third-floor window.

But for Italians in general and Romans in particular, this was hardly a regular today as they bid goodbye to the first Pope in 455 years who wasn’t one of them. — APBack


A giant of the age

Vatican City, April 2
Adored by many, attacked by others, Pope John Paul was the most prominent religious leader and perhaps the most widely recognised person in the world.

He died tonight after more than a quarter of a century on the global stage, where he was both a champion of the downtrodden and an often contested defender of orthodoxy within his own church.

For years, the world watched the decline in the health of the 84-year-old Polish Pope, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and severe arthritis. He had been barely able to speak at all since throat surgery in February.

His sharp decline in recent days prompted an outpouring of prayer by the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics and massive global media coverage which once again demonstrated that his personal appeal went far beyond the ranks of his own church.

John Paul burst on the scene on October 16, 1978, when cardinals in a closed-door conclave chose him as the first non-Italian pontiff in four and a half centuries.

Having survived an assassin’s bullet in 1981 to become the third longest-serving pope in history, the iron-willed Pole ushered the Church into the new millennium despite his sapped stamina. Historians say one of his lasting legacies will be his role in undermining communism in eastern Europe in 1989.

Fellow Poles believe his unflagging support for the banned Solidarity trade union while communists tried to crush it was a potent force that kept the movement alive.

Solidarity formed the East Bloc’s first non-communist government in 1989, marking the start of a wave of freedom which saw Marxist regimes fall like dominoes across Europe.

‘’Behold the night is over, day has dawned anew,’’ the Pope said during a triumphant visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990.

Amid the triumphs were disasters. In John Paul’s later years his church was rocked by allegation after allegation of sexual abuse of children by priests in the USA and several other countries.

Such cases led to prosecutions, multi-million dollar lawsuits and the undermining of respect for the clergy.

The Pope was accused of being too slow to tackle the scandal, after it emerged that priests known to American Church authorities to have abused children had been transferred from parish to parish instead of being sacked.

A decade after witnessing the fall of communism, John Paul visited the strife-torn Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, he asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries. — Reuters


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