ROME—Pope John Paul II lay near death here early Saturday morning as tens of thousands of people gathered in floodlit St. Peter's Square.
In an extraordinary pair of bulletins Friday, the Vatican alerted the world, using dry medical terms, that the pope's historic 26-year papacy was nearing its end. Then, as darkness fell and a huge crowd assembled inside Gianlorenzo Bernini's famous ellipse of marble columns, a senior cleric used words that everyone could understand.
"This evening or this night, Christ opens the door to the pope," Angelo Comastri, the pope's vicar general for Vatican City, said as John Paul lay in his apartment above the square.
Friday morning, the Vatican said the pope's condition was "very serious" and had "developed negatively" as he succumbed to a blood infection. In his final medical update of the day, at 7 p.m. Rome time, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope's "breathing has become shallow" and his overall health had become "compromised."
He said the pope, 84, had opted not to go to the hospital.
Earlier in the day, the Spanish spokesman, a doctor who's not prone to public displays of emotion, choked up while telling reporters how John Paul asked aides to read him the liturgy of the Third Hour—the biblical passage describing the final stage of the path that Christ took to his crucifixion. It's when the Bible says Christ's body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in a shroud and placed in his tomb.
Navarro-Valls said the pope responded to the reading at one point by making the sign of the cross.
"This is surely an image I have never seen in these 26 years," he said, fighting back tears and walking out of the room.
Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the governor of Vatican City and former archbishop of Detroit, said that when he visited the pope Friday morning he could see that his breathing was labored.
"As soon as he saw me, he recognized me," Szoka told CBS's "Early Show." "I blessed him, and as I did, he tried to make the sign of the cross. So he was perfectly lucid, perfectly conscious, but was having a great deal of trouble breathing.
"And I don't know how long he can continue with that. They were giving him oxygen and all that sort of thing, helping him," Szoka said.
After a report by an Italian news agency—later denied by the Vatican—that the pope's brain activity had ceased, St. Peter's Square began to fill with people, and church officials held a rosary service that was broadcast on giant video screens.
The crowd in front of a softly lit St. Peter's Basilica included somber-looking priests and nuns, parents hoisting young children on their shoulders and giddy teenagers. People were snapping digital pictures, pointing tiny video cameras and chatting on cell phones, in a measure of how much had changed since 1978, when John Paul's predecessor, John Paul I, was found dead in the papal apartments after just 33 days in the papacy.
He had succeeded Pope Paul VI, who died of a heart attack in August of 1978 in his summer palace at Castel Gandolfo, in the Alban Hills outside Rome.
Mauro Benedetti, 58, said worries over the pope's health had been consuming him Friday.
"This day just felt like a final moment," he said. "Everyone in Rome sensed it. We're losing something important to us all."
"Is it bad that I'm sort of excited?" wondered Rachel Tennial, 19, of St. Louis, a student in Loyola University's Rome program, who had hopped the subway to the square with friends when they heard the pope was near death. "It's just really surreal that history is happening right in front of us."
Mimma Terenzi, 70, said she wanted to be there, even though she isn't an active Catholic, because "this is one of those rare moments where we can feel the world uniting."
Although the pope has been suffering with Parkinson's disease for years, his health has declined precipitously since Feb. 1, when he was taken to Rome's Gemelli hospital after throat spasms caused severe problems breathing. He was released on Feb. 10, but two weeks later he was rushed back, and doctors had to insert a tube in his throat to assist his breathing.
While there have been complaints that the Vatican has been stingy with details about the pope's health, the language of Friday's bulletins was extraordinarily frank, making it clear to all that Karol Wojtyla of Poland, who's being called the third longest-serving pope in Catholic history, is nearing his end.
By contrast, the Vatican put out so little information about John Paul I's death in 1978 that large numbers of people came to believe that he'd been murdered. Author and Cambridge University professor John Cornwall interviewed key witnesses for his 1989 book "A Thief in the Night" and concluded that John Paul I died as a result of medical neglect.
Vatican observers were confident that John Paul II was getting top-notch medical care, although key details—such as what extraordinary measures have been authorized to keep the pope alive—were unknown.
Earlier Friday evening, thousands crammed into mass at San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome's first Christian basilica and until 700 years ago the official church of the pope.
Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were among those at the mass, along with Rome's mayor and hundreds of priests, nuns and Catholic Church officials.
Leana Scali, 55, shook her head as she walked from the basilica.
"We need him," she said. "He's done so much for us all, for the church, for Rome, for the world. We will miss him."
Susanna Altea, 32, said she worried that John Paul II was in pain.
"He's always suffered for us," she said, struggling through tears. "I don't know what this night will bring, but I pray that he finds peace."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Pope
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Pope
Need to map