The world mourned the late Pope John Paul II on Sunday and thousands of grieving pilgrims converged on Rome to pay homage to the Pole who helped topple Communism in Europe but left a divided Roman Catholic Church.
Streams of mourners began arriving in Rome in a spontaneous outpouring of affection for the Pontiff, who died on Saturday at 9:37 p.m. (1937 GMT) in his Vatican bed after an extended struggle with ill health.
“Our beloved Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father,” said Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, announcing the death to tens of thousands who had massed under the Pontiff’s windows to pray for a miraculous recovery that never came.
His dying word was “Amen,” newspapers said.
News of his death brought tears to faithful in the square and across the globe, triggered a river of tributes and set off what was expected to be one of the greatest influxes of pilgrims in Rome’s memory.
“He has called us and we have come,” said Giuseppe Incarnati, one of the pilgrims who rushed to the tiny Vatican City from Naples.
World leaders hailed John Paul as a force for peace across the globe while others credited him with a major role in the fall of the Iron Curtain. Some suggested he henceforth be called John Paul the Great.
“The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd. The world has lost a champion of human freedom,” President Bush said at the White House.
But liberal Catholics criticized his proclamations against contraception, abortion, married priests and women clergy.
As day broke over the Polish Pope’s adopted twin cities — Rome and Vatican City — the flow of pilgrims from afar began arriving in a fitting tribute to a Pontiff who traveled the equivalent of 30 times the circumference of the earth.
Some 80,000 people attended a Requiem Mass for the Pope that began at 10.30 a.m. (0830 GMT) in cobblestoned St. Peter’s Square.
From Brazil to the Philippines, South Africa to Germany, Roman Catholics prayed, wept and hugged each other when news flashed across the globe of the death of the Pope, whose 26-year reign was the third-longest pontificate.
In his native Poland, bells rang out across the country.
On Indonesia’s Nias island, somber survivors of last week’s huge earthquake gathered outdoors on Sunday for their first mass since the tremor to mourn the Pope.
Chinese Catholics, forbidden by their Communist rulers from recognizing the Holy See, sent a commemorative telegram.
Many countries decreed periods of national mourning, with his native Poland announcing six days and Communist Cuba three days. Italy also called three days of mourning.
The Vatican announced that the Pope’s body would lie in state for public viewing in St Peter’s Basilica from Monday afternoon at the earliest.
Some 200 world leaders, including Bush, were expected to attend the funeral, which was likely to be between Wednesday and Friday. Security officials said they were planning for Thursday.
The conclave to elect a new Pope will start in 15 to 20 days, with 117 cardinals from around the globe gathering in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to choose a successor.
When they agree on a new pope, an official will burn the paper ballots with special chemicals to make white smoke pour out of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney.
“ONE LAST TIME”
Bracing for up to 2 million pilgrims, Rome raced to provide extra trains, fresh water and thousands of beds.
“We were at a party last night when we heard of the Pope’s death,” said Erminia Palmieri as she arrived in Rome’s main train station from an outlying town.
“Everyone immediately stopped dancing. We went home and then decided to go to Rome. It’s important to be close to him spiritually but also physically because he was great.”
Rome authorities planned to erect giant screens across the city for pilgrims to follow celebrations, and the Ancient Roman Circus Maximus — once used for chariot races — was designated a gathering point for masses.
The city was also planning to open two stadiums for pilgrims with sleeping bags, to set up food and water points and bring in thousands of extra police.
“We want to greet him one last time,” said Valentina Malafoglia, a 23-year-old student, as she arrived in Rome from the city of Terni in central Italy.
The exact cause of the Pope’s death was not given but the his health had deteriorated steadily over the past decade with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease and arthritis.
He had an operation in February to ease serious breathing problems, but never regained his strength and last Thursday developed an infection and high fever that soon precipitated heart failure, kidney problems and ultimately death.
Many red-hatted princes of the Catholic Church had rushed to Rome in recent days to be near the Pope in his dying hours. Others will arrive before the first General Congregation of the Cardinals gathers on Monday to decide on the funeral details.
There is no favorite candidate to succeed John Paul, with possible choices, or “papabili,” coming from around the world. The former Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was himself a rank outsider when he was elevated to the papacy on Oct. 16, 1978.
Apart from his battle against communism and quest for global peace, John Paul will also be remembered for his unswerving defense of traditional Vatican doctrines.
Some Catholics hope the next Pope will be more liberal.
But John Paul appointed all but two of the cardinals who will elect his successor, thus stacking the odds that his controversial teachings will not be tampered with.
(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Jane Barrett, Antonella Cinelli)
© Reuters 2005