VATICAN CITY - John Paul II, who led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years and helped topple communism in Europe while becoming the most-traveled pope, died Saturday night in his Vatican apartment after 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 had gathered in St. Peter's Square below the pope's still-lighted apartment windows.
The assembled faithful 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.
The crowd, which appeared to grow quickly, recited the rosary. A person in the front held a Polish flag in honor of 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."
Later, as bells tolled in mourning, a group of young people sang, "Alleluia, he will rise again," while one of them strummed a guitar.
"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.
A Mass was scheduled for St. Peter's Square for 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. EDT) Sunday.
In contrast to the church's ancient traditions, Navarro-Valls announced the death in an e-mail to journalists: "The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. (2:37 p.m. EST) in his private apartment." The spokesman said church officials were following instructions that John Paul had written for them on Feb. 22, 1996.
"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.
John Paul declined rapidly after suffering heart and kidney failure following two hospitalizations 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.
Since his surprise election in 1978, John Paul traveled the world, inspiring a revolt against communism in his native Poland and across the Soviet bloc, but also preaching against consumerism, contraception and abortion.
John Paul was a robust 58 when the cardinals stunned the world and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
In his later years, however, John Paul was the picture of frailty. Although he kept up his travels, he was no longer able to kiss the ground.
Italy's ANSA news agency said Vatican and Italian flags were being lowered to half-staff across Rome and elsewhere. In Washington, flags over the White House also were lowered to half-staff.
People in John Paul II's hometown in Poland fell to their knees and wept as the news of his death 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 from the Vatican, but it took several minutes for people inside the packed, standing-room only church to find out as they continued their vigil into a second night.
Then parish priest, the Rev. Jakub Gil, came to the front of the church as the last hymn died 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.
Earlier 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.
The pope was last seen in public 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.
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.'"
One of the pope's closest aides, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was quoted Saturday as saying that when he saw the pontiff on Friday morning, John Paul was "aware that he is passing to the Lord."
The pope "gave me the final farewell," the news agency of the Italian bishops conference quoted the German cardinal as saying Friday night.
Highlights of Pope John Paul II's papacy:
- Oct. 16, 1978: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, elected pope by cardinals of Roman Catholic Church, first Pole ever and first non-Italian in 455 years. Succeeds Pope John Paul I, who died after 34-day papacy.
- Oct. 22, 1978: Formally installed as 264th Roman pontiff.
- Jan. 25, 1979: First trip abroad, to Dominican Republic, Mexico, Bahamas.
- June 2: Goes to Poland for first time as pope, setting off sparks that help establish Solidarity, first independent labor movement in Soviet bloc.
- Oct. 1: Begins first pilgrimage to United States, with stops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Iowa, Chicago, Washington, D.C.
- May 13, 1981: Shot in abdomen by Turk in St. Peter's Square.
- May 13, 1982: While visiting Fatima, Portugal, to give thanks to Virgin Mary for having saved his life, narrowly escapes attack by bayonet-wielding Spanish priest.
- Sept. 15, 1982: Receives Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat at Vatican, provoking criticism from Israel and Jewish groups.
- April 13, 1986: Makes historic visit to Rome's main synagogue.
- Dec. 1, 1989: Meets Mikhail Gorbachev at Vatican, first ever meeting between a pope and a Kremlin chief. They announce Vatican and Moscow will establish diplomatic ties.
- May 1, 1991: Issues first encyclical on social issues since fall of communism in Europe, giving qualified approval to capitalism but warning rich against taking advantage of poor.
- November: Hosts meeting of bishops marked by tensions between Catholics and Orthodox over battle for souls in former communist Europe.
- July 15, 1992: Operation for benign tumor on colon. Leaves hospital July 28.
- Oct. 31: Formally declares church erred in condemning Galileo.
- Aug. 13-15, 1993: Visits Denver on fourth trip to United States.
- Sept. 4-10: Visits former Soviet Union for first time, traveling to Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia.
- Sept. 21: Meets with Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Lau, at Vatican, first official encounter between a pontiff and chief rabbi from Israel.
- Oct. 5: Issues encyclical "Splendor of Truth," his major statement on morality, cracking down on dissent.
- Nov. 11: Dislocates right shoulder in fall down steps at Vatican audience. Undergoes operation and leaves hospital after overnight stay.
- Dec. 30: Agreement signed establishing formal ties between Israel and Vatican.
- April 29, 1994: Taken to hospital after breaking leg in fall. Undergoes hip replacement surgery. Discharged May 27.
- Sept. 10-11: Visits Croatia, first trip to former Yugoslavia.
- Oct. 19: His book, "Beyond the Threshold of Hope," published.
- March 3, 1995: Issues encyclical "Gospel of Life," and condemns spreading "culture of death," including abortion, euthanasia, experimentation on human embryos.
- May 18: 75th birthday.
- Sept. 6: After trying for months to portray Vatican as champion of women's rights ahead of U.N. conference on women, says women have special role in church but still can't be priests.
- Oct. 4-9: On U.S. visit, celebrates Mass in New York's Central Park, breaks bread with poor at Baltimore soup kitchen and tells U.N. General Assembly it should become "moral center" where all nations feel at home.
- Feb. 23, 1996: Vatican issues new rule book for papal conclave, requiring technicians to sweep Sistine Chapel for bugs and banning cell phones.
- Oct. 8: Undergoes surgery to remove appendix. Released from hospital Oct. 15.
- Nov. 10: Celebrates 50th anniversary as priest, urges struggling priests to stay true to church.
- Nov. 16: Autobiography, "Gift and Mystery," published, tracing pope's journey to priesthood during World War II and reflections as prelate.
- March 10, 1997: Vatican establishes diplomatic relations with Libya, overriding U.S. objections.
- April 12-13: Visits Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, after planned 1994 trip was scrapped because of war.
- May 10-11: Visits Beirut, Lebanon, and urges Christians and Muslims to make peace in war-battered country.
- May 31-June 10: During visit to Poland, gathers seven European presidents and tells them Europe cannot ignore Christian roots or be exclusive club for rich.
- Jan. 21-26, 1998: Visits Cuba for first time.
- Feb. 12: Cuba announces it will release dozens of prisoners in first concrete result of papal visit.
- Feb. 21: Elevates 22 prelates to rank of cardinal, including Chicago Archbishop Francis George and Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford.
- March 16: Vatican issues "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (Holocaust)," expressing remorse for cowardice of some Christians during World War II but defending actions of wartime Pope Pius XII.
- May 4: Swiss Guard trooper at Vatican kills commander and commander's wife, then self.
- Oct. 11: Declares Edith Stein a saint, first Jewish-born saint of modern era.
- Oct. 19: Celebrates 20th anniversary as pope, asks for prayers to fulfill his mission "until the end."
- Jan. 22-28, 1999: Visits Mexico 20 years after first papal trip there, meets with President Clinton in St. Louis at height of Monica Lewinsky scandal.
- March 1: Vatican confirms pope has waived five-year waiting period and begun beatification process for Mother Teresa.
- Dec. 11: Celebrates completion of $3 million restoration of Sistine Chapel.
- Dec. 24: Ushers in Vatican millennium Jubilee year by opening Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica.
- March 20-26, 2000: Makes first trip to Holy Land and expresses sorrow for suffering of Jews at Christian hands in note left at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
- Sept. 3: Beatifies much-attacked Pope Pius IX and much-loved Pope John XXIII in one of most disputed acts of papacy.
- May 4, 2001: Becomes first pope to visit Greece since Schism; issues sweeping apology for "sins of action and omission" by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians.
- Sept. 11: Condemns "unspeakable horror" of the day's terror attacks.
- Sept. 22-27: Goes ahead with trip to Kazakhstan and Armenia despite security concerns following Sept. 11 attacks.
- Nov. 22: Sends first Internet message, apologizing for missionary abuses against indigenous peoples of South Pacific.
- Jan. 24, 2002: Convenes religious leaders from around world in Assisi to pray for peace following Sept. 11 attacks.
- April 23: Summons U.S. cardinals to discuss sex abuse scandal, tells them there no place in priesthood for clerics who abuse young.
- Nov. 14: Becomes first pontiff to address Italian legislature.
- Feb. 14, 2003: Receives Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz on eve of war.
- March 6: "Roman Triptych," pope's first book of poetry since becoming pontiff, published.
- May 17: Cardinal, in newspaper interview, confirms pope has Parkinson's disease.
- June 5-9: Makes 100th foreign trip, visiting Croatia.
- July 31: Vatican launches global campaign against gay marriages.
- Aug. 15, 2004: Breathes heavily and gasps during open-air Mass at Lourdes, France.
- Feb. 1, 2005: Rushed to Rome hospital with flu and difficulties breathing.
- Feb. 10: Released from hospital.
- Feb. 22: Pope's newest book, "Memory and Identity," is officially launched. Describes for first time moments after being shot in 1981, saying he was "almost on the other side" but thought he'd live.
- Feb. 23: Holds longest audience - 30 minutes - since being hospitalized. It's broadcast by video instead of being held in person at apartment window because of rain and winds.
- Feb. 24: Readmitted to hospital suffering fever and congestion from a relapse of the flu.
- March 13: Discharged from hospital.
- March 25: Unable for the first time to appear in public on a Good Friday, but shown via video sitting in his chapel.
- March 27: Delivered Easter Sunday blessing to tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square but was unable to speak and managed only to greet the saddened crowd with a sign of the cross.
- March 30: Appeared briefly in public at his window, looking gaunt and unable to speak; feeding tube inserted in his nose.
- March 31: Health declined sharply, with urinary tract infection, high fever, septic shock and kidney and heart problems.
- April 1: Listed in "very grave condition" but reported to be "fully conscious and extraordinarily serene." One of his closest advisers, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told the Italian bishops' news agency: "He's aware he's passing to the Lord."
- April 2: Died at 2:37 p.m. EST.