President Bush hailed the late Pope John Paul II on Saturday as a wise and fearless leader, whose moral authority helped a democratic revolution sweep through Eastern Europe.

“The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd; the world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home,” a somber Bush said in the White House residence, his wife, Laura, at his side.

John Paul, he said, was “a hero for the ages.”

The White House said it was waiting to hear from the Vatican on Sunday about funeral arrangements before announcing the U.S. delegation that will travel to the event.

Bush was expected to lead the delegation.

As a mark of respect for the pope, Bush ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff at the White House and all public and military facilities until the burial of the pontiff.

“Pope John Paul II was himself an inspiration to millions of Americans and to so many more throughout the world. We will always remember the humble, wise and fearless priest who became one of history’s great moral leaders,” Bush said.

Bush hailed the pope’s contribution to the end of communism in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.

“It shows the courage of one person can help change history,” Bush said in a comment to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, reflecting on John Paul.

Bush and the first lady later attended a solemn Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, said the pope was “a man who had been challenged and been purified in the difficulties of fascism and communism,” and ultimately “was able to overcome a system that had enslaved the people.”

McCarrick said John Paul may well be best remembered as a populist, magnetic personality who could “walk through a crowd and touch every single person that was there because he loved them.”

Bush and the pope did not always see eye to eye. John Paul opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the Vatican was outraged by the prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

The pope raised the Iraq issue and the Middle East during the last of three meetings they held, a 15-minute, private encounter in June.

But the two leaders had other areas of agreement, such as “culture of life” issues, including the case of the brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, who died this week 13 days after her feeding tube was removed over the objections of her parents.

Bush had rushed back to Washington from his Texas ranch last month to sign emergency legislation aimed at keeping the woman alive, an effort that ultimately failed.

“Throughout the West, John Paul’s witness reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak,” Bush said.

Bush learned of the pope’s death from a staffer in the White House residence based on news reports. Official word came via the Vatican, which had informed the U.S. Embassy.

“We’re grateful to God for sending such a man, a son of Poland who became the bishop of Rome and a hero for the ages,” Bush said.

© Reuters 2005