SATURDAY, April 2, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Pope John Paul II, the charismatic leader of the Roman Catholic Church, died Saturday, after surviving a long series of illnesses that, until recently, did not interfere with his duties.
"The Holy Father died this evening at 9:37 p.m. (2:37 p.m. EST) in his private apartment," the Vatican announced. "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."
These procedures include the instructions for the pope's funeral and the convening in the Vatican of the College of Cardinals, who will choose his successor.
Church officials also announced a Sunday morning mass in St. Peter's Square, which looks up to the private Vatican apartment from which the pope would often bless and speak to the faithful gathered there.
The 84-year-old pope, who had been recovering from two recent hospitalizations for respiratory crises, took a sudden turn for the worse Thursday night.
A day after he had been provided with a feeding tube to improve his nourishment, he developed a urinary tract infection and then a high fever. And he was given last rites.
On Friday, the Vatican pronounced the pontiff in "very grave" condition after he suffered heart failure and septic shock.
His condition deteriorated quickly Friday, as his breathing grew shallow and his kidneys malfunctioned, the Vatican said.
By Saturday morning, he was slipping "in and out of consciousness," church officials said, although they added that he never lapsed into a coma.
According to Vatican chief spokesman Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope had decided not to enter the hospital, and was cared for instead in his Vatican apartment by a team of intensive-care specialists.
There he took part in a Mass Friday morning and also asked aides to read him the biblical passage describing the final stage of the Way of the Cross, the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion. In that stage, according to the Bible, the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in his tomb.
His dramatic decline followed a week of Easter services, during which he appeared publicly at times but was unable to speak as he blessed the crowds. On Monday, he failed to appear at his window overlooking St. Peter's Square for the traditional blessing marking the end of Holy Week.
Dubbed the "Traveling Pope" and the "Pilgrim Pope," Jonh Paul II spoke 11 languages fluently, and his travels included 95 visits outside Italy.
Perhaps his most memorable journey occurred less than eight months after his elevation to the papacy in 1978, when the former Rev. Karol Wojtyla returned to his native Poland as Pope John Paul II for nine days that shook that nation.
Huge crowds roared their approval wherever he went, a source of consternation to government officials who had banned organized religion in the then-Communist country.
Many historians now point to that visit, and his support of the nascent Solidarity labor movement, as one of the earliest challenges to communism that would lead to its eventual collapse in eastern Europe by 1991.
Among many world leaders who praised the pope was President Bush, who said, "We will always remember the humble, wise and fearless priest who became one of history's great moral leaders."
On March 14, 2004, John Paul II became the third longest-serving pontiff, followed by Pius IX (1846-1878) and the very first pope, St. Peter.
He was also the first non-Italian pope since the 15th century.
To his supporters, John Paul II was a galvanizing, heroic figure who took a strong stance on human rights, was quick to criticize the materialism of the western world, and denounced the gap in wealth between developed and undeveloped countries. He was also credited with establishing stronger ties with other faiths, particularly the Jewish faith, after he admitted the Catholic Church could have done more to help prevent the Holocaust.
To his critics, the pope was a reactionary intent on insulating the church from the social changes that have come to define modern western society. A theological conservative, he opposed the ordination of women, although the Catholic Church is struggling with a dwindling number of priests, and denounced birth control and abortion.
John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, a small city near Cracow, on May 18, 1920. He made his First Communion at age 9 and was confirmed at 18, according to the Catholic Online Web site. After graduation from Marcin Wadowita high school in Wadowice, he enrolled in Cracow's Jagiellonian University in 1938 and in a school for drama.
Nazi occupation forces shut that university in 1939. The young Karol had to work in a quarry and then in a chemical factory to avoid deportation to Germany. In 1942, he began courses in a clandestine seminary run by Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, Archbishop of Cracow.
After World War II, he continued his studies in the now-reopened Cracow seminary, and was ordained a priest in Cracow on Nov. 1, 1946.
In 1958, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Cracow by Pope Pius XII, and in 1964 was nominated Archbishop of Cracow by Pope Paul VI, who made him a cardinal on June 26, 1967.
John Paul II was elected pope on October 16, 1978. Three years into his papacy, a Turkish gunman shot and severely wounded the pontiff in St. Peter's Square. The bullets hit him in the stomach and hand. Emergency surgery at a Rome hospital saved his life.
In 1992, the then-72-year-old pontiff had surgery to remove an orange-sized malignant tumor from his intestines. At about the same time, a tremor in his left hand lead doctors to diagnose him with Parkinson's disease. Over time, his facial muscles stiffened, his speech and breathing became labored, and his posture grew stooped -- all classic signs of the central nervous system disorder.
In 1994, John Paul slipped in his bath tub and broke his right thigh bone, hospitalizing him for a month and forcing him to give up one of his passions -- skiing.
Despite his growing health problems, John Paul continued to travel the world, including a much-heralded return to Poland in 1999. But by 2002, arthritis in his right knee forced the pontiff to scale back many of his activities.
In February, John Paul was hospitalized with what the Vatican initially called the flu. He was soon diagnosed with a post-flu complication called an acute laryngospasm, a blockage of the larynx that made it difficult for him to breathe.
For more about Pope John Paul II's life, visit this site operated by the Vatican.