ROME—By late Friday, tens of thousands of Romans filled the streets, crowding historic squares, praying, grieving and yet rejoicing in the Polish man who has led the Roman Catholic Church for 27 years—and waiting for news that most thought had become inevitable.
Word that the life of Pope John Paul II was slipping away came Thursday night, just as political leaders were preparing to debate one last time before regional elections.
They stopped talking politics and used the televised debate to explain the importance of this pope and what he'd meant to Italy, and to the world.
Then Rome started to grieve. Throughout Friday, Italians held their heads in their hands in cafes, sat with thousand-mile stares in piazzas and gathered by the thousands in sacred spots around the city.
Caron Miglio said the seriousness of the situation hit her when she woke Friday morning.
"You could just feel the difference between the other times he's been sick," she said. "This is a very sad city."
In her apartment only blocks from the Vatican, she turned on the television in the morning and watched the news. As night fell, she felt the need to walk the ancient cobbled streets to St. Peter's Square, and join the thousands standing in the curves of Bernini's colonnade.
Together, they prayed and sang and stared up at the two lit windows of the pope's corner apartment, so often a sign that he was hard at work for the church, but this night simply sad.
"Look, I'm not even Catholic," Miglio said. "But he's such a lovely man. He's like everyone's grandpa, isn't he? We'll all miss him."
Barbara Wiessenfels, 37, said she couldn't step outside Friday without thinking of him.
"He was in my mind with every step today," she said.
Mauro Benedetti, 58, said he couldn't speak Friday morning when he woke.
"All day long at work, it was all we could talk about, all we could think about," he said.
Danilo Ciarniello, 27, said it was no mystery why the pope's failing health had such an effect on Rome. Ciarniello had come out to spend the evening at the final Mass at San Giovanni in Laterano, the home church of the pope, out of a sense of obligation.
"He's done so much for us, for me," he said. "Even now, in his last months when he was suffering, he was teaching us lessons, about the value of life, and about facing death with dignity. These are lessons that will stay with us, even if he doesn't."
A nun, Sister Pino, said that anyone who loved the church understood what he had meant to it.
"His whole life has been reaching out to the world; he has touched so many people," she said. "He was a great pope."
Brother Moacyr, a Brazilian professor of church law, said this last lesson of Pope John Paul II's was one of many that would last beyond the life of the pope.
"Life has value, every bit of it, he's shown that to us," he said. "The last moments of his life are such a strong testimony. Aging does not mean you have nothing of value left to offer; this lesson came through in these last months. Life matters even if you are suffering. And these lessons are so appropriate with this pope, because his whole life was testimony. That's why the church will miss him, why the whole world will miss him."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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