VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II set an example of how to live life, a dynamic preacher who traveled the world, battled communism and proclaimed his moral code opposing abortion, casual sex and consumerism.
In his final days, crushed by sickness that slowed his vigorous gait and silenced his powerful voice, he tried to set an example of how to suffer and how to die.
As he hovered near death, his system failing, the pontiff who once skied and hiked mountains refused to go to the hospital, preferring to remain in his Vatican apartment with his closest aides at his bedside.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the German prelate who is the chief guardian of church doctrine, said John Paul had been aware that he was ‘‘passing to the Lord.’’
John Paul had often warned against a modern world that preferred to ignore its elderly, seeing them as useless appendages of society. Many said his persistence to stay on his job — even travel — set a wonderful example for the sick and the ailing.
The Polish pontiff who led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years and became history’s most-traveled pope, died Saturday in his Vatican apartment. In his travels, he came in direct contact with more people than any other pope in history, earning the description "pope of the people." 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-lit apartment windows.
A Mass was scheduled for St. Peter’s Square for today. The pope’s body was expected to be taken to St. Peter’s 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 Monday. They were expected to set a funeral date, which the Vatican said probably would be between Wednesday and Friday.
The statement did not give a precise cause of death.
Bells pealed in mourning after the Vatican said the pope died at 9:37 p.m. (12:37 p.m. Arizona time). The assembled flock fell into a stunned silence before some people broke out in applause — an Italian tradition in which mourners often clap for important figures. Others wept.
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 ancient practice of verification by calling the pope’s name three times and tapping his forehead three times with a silver hammer.
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.
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 disease, 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.
Outside the Vatican, the crowd of faithful recited the rosary. A seminarian slowly waved a large red and white Polish flag draped with a black band of mourning for the Polish-born pontiff.
Prelates asked those in the square to keep silent so they might ‘‘accompany the pope in his first steps into heaven.’’
As the bells tolled in mourning, a group of young people sang, ‘‘Hallelujah, he will rise again,’’ while one of them strummed a guitar. Later, 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 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 email that said: ‘‘The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. in his private apartment.’’ The spokesman said church officials were following instructions that John Paul had written for them on Feb. 22, 1996.
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 — opposition to contraception, abortion and women priests — that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and western Europe.
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.
He 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.
But, 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.
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 the 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.’ ’’