Pope John Paul II died today at age 84, Vatican officials said. One of the most influential leaders of the 20th and early 21st centuries, he worked tirelessly to build a moral foundation in the modern world, while playing a crucial role in overthrowing communism and fostering peace.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced the pope's death in a statement that was distributed to journalists via e-mail: "The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. (2:37 p.m. ET) in his private apartment. All the procedures outlined in the apostolic Constitution 'Universi Dominici Gregis' that was written by John Paul II on Feb. 22, 1996, have been put in motion."
Cardinal Giovanni Battista announced the pontiff's death tens of thousands of people who had gathered in St. Peter's Square in a vigil for the pope.
"Dearest brothers and sisters, at 21:37, our beloved Father John Paul II has returned to the house of his Father. Let's pray for him," Battista said.
Onlookers fell silent once the pope's death was announced. Then in an Italian traditional salute, some clapped in tribute to the pope. Only the slow tolling of one of the great bells of St. Peter's Basilica could be heard. On Sunday, in honor of Pope John Paul II's memory, the mass to celebrate the Feast of the Divine Mercy will be celebrated in St. Peter's Square.
The Vatican said the pope's body is expected to be brought to St. Peter's Basilica to lie in state no earlier than Monday afternoon. His body will be laid to rest in the crypt underneath St. Peter's Basilica.
The College of Cardinals will meet Monday in advance of the process to decide John Paul's successor. After the official nine-day mourning period ends, the cardinals will hold a secret vote in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor. According to Vatican tradition, the process will begin no later than 20 days following the pope's death.
The crowds began gathering by the thousands on Friday when the Vatican announced the pope was in "very grave" condition.Pope John Paul II had suffered cardio-circular failure and septic shock late Thursday while being treated for a urinary infection, the Vatican said. By Friday afternoon, his breathing had become shallow and his kidneys were no longer functioning properly, it said.
The pope, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, had become increasingly frail in recent years, and over the last several weeks his health took a dramatic turn for the worse. He underwent a tracheotomy on Feb. 24 to help him breathe more easily after being hospitalized for the second time in a month with flu-like symptoms and respiratory trouble.
His illness forced him to skip most of the Holy Week observations, for the first time in his nearly 27-year papacy. John Paul appeared at his window on Easter Sunday, March 27, to bless the faithful thronging St. Peter's Square, but he was unable to speak.
He began receiving nutrition through a nasal feeding tube on Wednesday to boost his caloric intake. The next day the Vatican confirmed he had a high fever caused by a urinary tract infection. The pope was given the sacrament known as known as Anointing of the Sick, which is reserved for the very ill or dying. Over the next hours, he suffered septic shock and his condition continued to deteriorate.
Official reaction to the pope's death came quickly.
President Bush ordered that flags nationwide be lowered to half staff, and said, "The world has lost a champion of human freedom" in Pope John Paul II. He called the pope "humble, wise and fearless priest who became one of history's great moral leaders."
"A good and faithful servant of God has been called home, " Bush said. Bush was expected to travel to Rome for the pope's funeral.
Former President Bill Clinton said Pope John Paul II was a symbol of unity in a divided world.
"In speaking powerfully and eloquently for mercy and reconciliation to people divided by old hatreds and persecuted by abuse of power, the Holy Father was a beacon of light not just for Catholics, but for all people," Clinton said in a statement.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed that the pope "was a tireless advocate of peace, a true pioneer in interfaith dialogue and a strong force for critical self-evaluation by the church itself."
Cardinal Karol Josef Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was elected the 264th leader of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, at age 58. The first non-Italian to assume the papacy in 455 years, he took the name John Paul, following the lead of his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who died after just 33 days as pontiff. In 2003, John Paul II marked the 25th year of his papacy.
In the 2,000-year history of the church, no other pope has traveled as far. Fluent in eight languages, John Paul II visited more than 100 countries on every continent but Antarctica, making a point of seeing not only world leaders, but those in hospitals, slums and prisons.
John Paul often stunned political leaders by setting diplomacy aside and speaking out on controversial issues. In March 2000, he apologized for mistakes committed in the name of the church over the past two millenniums, including the Inquisition, the Crusades and the persecution of Jews. In January 1998, he made a historic visit to communist Cuba, where his appeals for freedom of speech, human rights and the release of political prisoners were the first noncommunist public speeches since 1959.
His trip, the first to Cuba of any pope, revitalized the Catholic religion on the island nation after almost 40 years of repression, even prompting President Fidel Castro to lift the ban on Christmas celebrations.
The peaceful revolution John Paul sparked in Cuba was much like the ones he supported in Eastern Europe and his native Poland. As a cardinal, he secretly aided the anti-communist struggle by smuggling money and supplies to the Catholic underground in what was then Czechoslovakia.
After becoming pope, John Paul II wrote letters of counsel to Solidarity trade union activists in Poland, where the communist regime imposed martial law in 1981.
His visits to Poland fueled the eventual success of the Solidarity movement there, which many see as the precipitating event in the collapse of the communist bloc. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed that without the support of John Paul, communism would have been "impossible" to overthrow. John Paul insisted, from first to last, that the Solidarity revolution be strictly nonviolent. It was.
On matters of personal morality -- especially on matters related to sex and sexuality -- John Paul led the church as a staunch traditionalist. He denounced birth control, capital punishment, divorce, homosexuality and the ordination of women. He issued a catechism of the Catholic Church, summarizing all the beliefs and moral tenets of the church.
"[The church] speaks to the human heart and magnifies the voice of human conscience," he said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in October 1995.
"She seeks to educate and ennoble people so that they accept responsibility for themselves and for others. In the context of the community of nations, the church's message is simple yet absolutely critical for the survival of humanity and the world. The human person must be the true focus of all social, political and economic activity."
But despite his humanitarian efforts, allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests in the United States cast a shadow over the pope's image in the United States during his final years.
At least 325 of the United States' 46,000 priests were removed from duty or resigned because of molestation charges. Cardinal Bernard Law stepped down as archbishop of Boston in December 2002 after months of public outrage that he failed to protect children from pedophile priests.
And in June 2003, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien was forced to resign amid criminal charges stemming from a fatal hit-and-run accident. Just before the accident, O'Brien had been embroiled in controversy, winning immunity from prosecution after signing an agreement admitting he kept known pedophile priests in positions with access to children.
As the millennium turned, John Paul II made a bold ecumenical move, issuing an official apology for the wrongs done by Catholics in the name of the church over the centuries. He apologized to women, Jews, Muslims and other groups. But his groundbreaking apology was only the latest step in a 20-year career to further peace and reconciliation.
In 1981, a Turkish gunman tried to assassinate John Paul in St. Peter's Square in Rome. The pope spent nearly three months in the hospital and later visited his attacker, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison. The pope never revealed what was said in that conversation.
Italy released Agca on June 13, 2000, after imprisoning him for almost 20 years, for extradition to Turkey where he was imprisoned on other charges. The Vatican told the government John Paul supported the act of clemency.
In his fifth book, "Memory and Identity," published in February 2005, the pope for the first time wrote about the assassination attempt.
"Yes, I remember that journey to the hospital," he wrote. "I remained conscious for some time after. I had a feeling that I would survive. I was in pain, I had reason to be afraid, but I had this strange feeling of confidence."
The pope was ever an advocate for peace and forgiveness, not only in his personal life, but throughout the world. Within a year of his near-assassination, John Paul actively sought peace between Argentina and Britain, which were at war over the Falkland Islands, and the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1986, he established the World Day of Prayer for Peace as he continued to work toward a resolution to the tensions in the Middle East. He met and corresponded with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and appealed for peace in Lebanon after the murder of President-elect Bechir Gemayel. In 2000, he went to Israel to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and pray for peace. His visit was the first official trip by a pope to the Jewish state.
In 1990, John Paul lobbied for peace in the Persian Gulf, writing letters to President George H.W. Bush and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq in an attempt to avert the Gulf War. After the allied coalition's airstrikes against Iraq in 1998, he expressed deep sorrow for the suffering of the Iraqi people.
He opposed economic sanctions against Cuba, Libya, Iran and Iraq, saying they hurt the people and were politically ineffective. During his tenure, he restored the Vatican's diplomatic relations with Poland, Albania, the Russian Federation, Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Mexico, Jordan, South Africa, Israel (ending tensions that had persisted since 1948), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya and Cuba.
Karol Joseph Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-TEE-wah) was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. He lost his mother when he was 9, his only brother when he was 12, and his father when he was 21. Despite his love for athletics, young Wojtyla declared that he hoped to pursue the study of literature or acting.
He enrolled at Jagiellonian University in Krakow to study philosophy, and there joined an experimental theater group. After the start of World War II, Wojtyla continued with his studies and underground theater, while working as a stonecutter to avoid deportation or imprisonment. During the war, he was active in an underground Christian democratic group that helped Jews escape the Nazis.
After two near-fatal accidents, Wojtyla put his former ambitions aside to study for the priesthood, and was ordained on Nov. 1, 1946. Wojtyla taught social ethics at the Krakow Seminary, and in 1956 was appointed chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin. In 1967 he was consecrated cardinal, and 11 years later became the youngest pope in a century.
Although he was conservative on many social issues, particularly those involving the role of women in the church, John Paul was in many ways a leader for the modern age. In 1997, he introduced the Holy See Internet site, and also broadcast Mass in cyberspace for the first time. A compact disc of his rosary prayers made it on the charts in Europe; and "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," his book of meditations on topics ranging from the existence of God to the mistreatment of women, was an immediate best seller in 12 countries.
Seeing the young as an asset to the church, John Paul began the tradition of World Youth Day in 1985. The celebration continues every other year, drawing hundreds of thousands of young people from around the globe.
In December 2000, a Vatican-approved comic book starring the pope hit the newsstands, a small honor compared to the one from Time magazine six years earlier -- when it named him its "Man of the Year" in 1994.
In his last years, the pope's health became increasingly fragile, and Parkinson's disease was clearly taking a toll on him. Nevertheless, he remained active, ignoring suggestions he might consider retiring. He continued with his often-grueling schedule, reportedly telling aides, "If I collapse, I collapse."
The year 2000 was a jubilee year for Catholics -- and it was a remarkable year for the ailing pope. In March, he made a wide-ranging apology for the mistakes made in the name of the church through the ages.
In Israel, he continued his message of reconciliation when he visited the Holocaust memorial and prayed at the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites of Judaism.
In the year 2001, John Paul named a record 44 new cardinals, which means he chose the vast majority of the cardinals who will now elect his successor.
In October 2003, the pope and millions of people around the world celebrated his 25th anniversary as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
That month he waived the standard waiting period and beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the nun who became world-renowned for her efforts to help India's poor. The move put the nun, who died in 1997, on the fast track for being recognized as a saint.
In his final weeks, the pope's increasing frailty and inability to speak -- the result of a tracheotomy -- seemed to frustrate him. Forced to miss the traditional Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday, March 25, he nevertheless appeared via video link. In a message read by a cardinal, John Paul assured the faithful he was "spiritually with you."
"Even I offer up my sufferings, so that God's plan is fulfilled and so that his word spreads among the people," the pope said. "I am also close to those who, at this moment, are tried by sufferings. I pray for each one of them."