VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II, who helped topple communism in Europe and left a deeply conservative stamp on the church that he led for 26 years, died Saturday night in his Vatican apartment, ending a long public struggle against debilitating illness. He was 84.
"We all feel like orphans this evening," Undersecretary of State Archbishop Leonardo Sandri told the crowd of 70,000 that gathered in St. Peter's Square below the pope's still-lighted apartment windows.
In the massive piazza that stretches from St. Peter's Basilica, the assembled flock fell into a stunned silence before some people broke into applause - an Italian tradition in which mourners often clap for important figures. Others wept. Still others recited the rosary. A seminarian slowly waved a large red and white Polish flag draped with black bunting for the Polish-born pontiff, the most-traveled pope in history.
At one point, prelates asked those in the square to stay silent so they might "accompany the pope in his first steps into heaven."
But as the Vatican bells tolled in mourning, a group of young people sang, "Alleluia, he will rise again." One strummed a guitar, and other pilgrims joined in singing the "Ave Maria."
"The angels welcome you," Vatican TV said after papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls announced the death of the pope, who had for years suffered from Parkinson's disease and came down with fever and infections in recent weeks.
In contrast to the church's ancient traditions, Navarro-Valls announced the death to journalists in the most modern of communication forms, an e-mail that said: "The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. in his private apartment." The spokesman said church officials now would be following instructions that John Paul had written for them on Feb. 22, 1996. A precise cause of death was not given.
In the last two days of the pope's life, after it had become clear he would not recover, the tide of humanity near the vatican had ebbed and flowed, swelling again Saturday night.
"He was a marvelous man. Now he's no longer suffering," Concetta Sposato, a pilgrim who heard the pope had died as she was on her way to St. Peter's to pray, said tearfully.
"My father died last year. For me, it feels the same," said Elisabetta Pomacalca, a 25-year-old Peruvian who lives in Rome.
"I'm Polish. For us, he was a father," said pilgrim Beata Sowa.
A Mass was scheduled for St. Peter's Square for 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. EDT) Sunday. The pope's body was expected to be taken to the basilica no earlier than Monday afternoon, the Vatican said.
It said the College of Cardinals - the red-robed "princes" of the Roman Catholic Church - would meet at 10 a.m. (4 a.m. EDT) Monday in a pre-conclave session. They were expected to set a funeral date, which the Vatican said probably would be between Wednesday and Friday.
Karol Joseph Wojtyla was a robust 58 when the last papal conclave stunned the world and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
In his later years, John Paul was the picture of frailty. In addition to Parkinson's, he survived a 1981 assassination attempt, when a Turkish gunman shot him in the abdomen, and had hip and knee ailments. His anguished struggle with failing health became a symbol of aging and, in the end, death with dignity.
People in John Paul II's hometown in Wadowice, Poland, fell to their knees and wept as the news reached them at the end of a special Mass in the church where he worshipped as a boy.
Church bells rang out after the announcement, but it took several minutes for people inside the packed church to find out as they continued their vigil into a second night.
Then the parish priest, the Rev. Jakub Gil, came to the front as the last hymn faded away. "His life has come to an end. Our great countryman has died," he said. People inside the church and standing outside fell to their knees.
John Paul's passing set in motion centuries of tradition that mark the death of the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, whom he led into the faith's third millennium.
The Vatican chamberlain formally verified the death and destroyed the symbols of the pope's authority: his fisherman's ring and dies used to make lead seals for apostolic letters.
The Vatican did not say if the chamberlain followed the other ancient practice of verifying death by calling the pope's name three times and tapping his forehead three times with a silver hammer.
The Vatican has declined to say whether John Paul left instructions for his funeral or burial. Most popes in recent centuries have asked to be buried in the crypts below St. Peter's Basilica, but some have suggested the first Polish-born pope might have chosen to be laid to rest in his native country.
As John Paul's death neared, members of the College of Cardinals were already headed toward the Vatican to prepare for the secret duty of locking themselves in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope. Tradition calls for the process to begin within 20 days of death.
Among possible successors are German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - one of the pope's closest aides and the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog. Others mentioned include Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican-based Nigerian, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria and Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Italy.
In Washington, President Bush mourned the loss of "a good and faithful servant of God (who) has been called home" and said the pontiff "launched a democratic revolution that swept Eastern Europe and changed the course of history."
A fierce enemy of communism, John Paul set off the sparks that helped bring down communism in Poland, from where a virtual revolution spread across the Soviet bloc. No less an authority than former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said much of the credit went to John Paul.
But his Polish roots also nourished a doctrinal conservatism. He reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control and denounced in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, sex outside marriage, homosexual relations and same-sex unions.
He demanded celibacy of Roman Catholic priests and said yet again that the priesthood was not open to women. He did give in to the demands of liberal Catholics to allow altar girls.
A man who had lived under both the Nazis and the Soviets, he loathed totalitarianism, which he called "substitute religion." As pope, he helped foster Poland's Solidarity movement and bring down Communism. Once it was vanquished, he decried capitalist callousness.
During World War II, he appeared on a Nazi blacklist in 1944 for his activities in a Christian democratic underground in Poland. B'nai B'rith and other organizations testified that he helped Jews find refuge from the Nazis.
While the pope championed better relations with Jews - Christianity's "older brothers," as he put it - the Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. He also met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and urged the Holy Land's warring neighbors to reconcile.
John Paul was intent on improving relations with Muslims. On a trip to Damascus, Syria, in May 2001, he became the first pope to step into a mosque.
The 264th pope also battled what he called a "culture of death" in modern society. It made him a hero to those who saw him as their rock in a degenerating world, and a foe to those who felt he was holding back social enlightenment.
"The church cannot be an association of freethinkers," John Paul said.
However, a sex abuse scandal among clergy plunged his church into moral crisis. He summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican and told them: "The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God." Critics accused the pope of not acting swiftly enough.
Other critics said that while the pope championed the world's poor, he was not consistent when he rebuked Latin American priests who sought to involve the church politically through the doctrine of "liberation theology."
John Paul's health declined rapidly after he suffered heart and kidney failure after he was hospitalized twice in as many months. Just two hours before announcing his death, the Vatican had said he was in "very serious" condition, although he was responding to aides.
After his passing, Vatican, Italian and European Union flags were lowered to half-staff. In Washington, flags over the White House also were lowered.
The pope's final public appearance was Wednesday when, looking gaunt and unable to speak, he briefly appeared at his window.
His health sharply deteriorated the next day after he suffered a urinary tract infection.
In his last medical statement Saturday, Navarro-Valls said John Paul was not in a coma and opened his eyes when spoken to. But he added: "Since dawn this morning, there have been first signs that consciousness is being affected."
"Sometimes it seems as if he were resting with his eyes closed, but when you speak to him he opens his eyes," Navarro-Valls said.
Navarro-Valls said the pope was still speaking late Friday but did not take part when Mass was celebrated in his presence Saturday morning.
He said aides had told the pope that thousands of young people were in St. Peter's Square on Friday evening. Navarro-Valls said the pope appeared to be referring to them when he seemed to say: "'I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.'"