Church Prepares Faithful for End of Pope's Reign

By Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul received the blessing for the dying after his health suddenly worsened, drawing anguished prayers on Friday from Catholics around the globe reluctant to accept his end may be near.
Church officials tried to prepare the faithful for the close of one of the longest papal reigns in history, after the Vatican said the long-ailing Pope had received the special communion for those near death -- and had declined further hospital treatment.

"What I'm doing now is praying that the crossing to the other life may be painless and peaceful," said Cardinal Godfried Danneels, archbishop of Brussels-Mechelen in Belgium.

The 84-year-old Pope was still conscious and in a stable but serious condition after heart failure, his spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told a news briefing as he fought back tears. He said the Pontiff had celebrated Mass from his bed as dawn broke.

"The Pope is lucid," he said. "He is extraordinarily serene even though naturally he has breathing problems."

After weeks of worsening health, he developed a high fever on Thursday caused by a urinary infection. "A state of septic shock and cardio-circulatory collapse set in," the Vatican said.

Catholics flocked to churches to light candles and pray for the man 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 were summoned to the Holy Father's bedside to say their farewells in person.

"He is fading serenely," Andrzej Deskur, a cardinal from John Paul's native Poland, was quoted by Agi news agency as saying.

"They were giving him oxygen through the nose," Edmund Szoka, the Polish-American governor of Vatican City, told CBS News. "I blessed him and he tried to make the sign of the cross ... I was sad to see him suffering."

He said the Pope was attended by three doctors, a priest and several Polish nuns.


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 weeping.

"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.

Navarro-Valls said the Pope on Thursday took "Holy Viaticum" communion, for those near death, after a sharp downturn in his health.

"He is still conscious. At this moment the situation is stable but significantly serious conditions remain," he said.

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

"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 to the sprightly Wojtyla who strode onto the world stage on Oct. 16, 1978, and traveled the globe tirelessly to preach the Gospels.

He has been leading the world's largest church, of over a billion Roman Catholics, for 26 years -- longer than all but two earlier popes.


He 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 favorite candidate to take over as head of the 1.1 billion-member 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.

Roman 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.

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

Italian media said his temperature leapt to around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Thursday and his blood pressure plunged, a day after doctors had inserted a feeding tube through his nose and into his stomach to boost his fading strength.

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 favor among poor-country Catholics but criticism from liberal believers in developed countries for his proclamations against contraception, abortion, married priests and women clergy.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in the Vatican City, Wojciech Zurawski in Krakow, Tom Ashby in Lagos, Paul Hoskins in Dublin)

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