VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope John Paul appeared close todeath on Friday after heart failure and breathing problems, butwas still conscious and in a stable but serious condition atmidday, the Vatican said.
Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope had receivedthe “Holy Viaticum” communion, reserved for those near death,after a sharp downturn in his health overnight. He told hisaides he did not want to return to hospital for treatment.
The Pope’s deteriorating health sparked an outpouring ofemotion and anxiety among the more than one billion RomanCatholics around the world, especially in his native Poland.
“He is still conscious. At this moment the situation isstable but significantly serious conditions remain,”Navarro-Valls told journalists, adding the Pontiff hadcelebrated Mass from his bed as dawn broke.
Navarro-Valls fought back tears and said he had never seenthe Pope in such a state during his 26 years as head of theworld’s largest church.
“The Pope is lucid,” he said. “He is extraordinarily sereneeven though naturally he has breathing problems.”
Senior clergy indicated John Paul’s life was ebbing away.
“He is fading serenely,” Polish Cardinal Andrzej MariaDeskur, a close friend, was quoted as saying by Agi newsagency.
Italian media reported on Friday morning that John Paul wasin a coma, but the Vatican quickly dismissed that as “rubbish.”
A Vatican statement earlier on Friday said the Pope haddeveloped a high fever on Thursday evening caused by a urinaryinfection. “A state of septic shock and cardio-circulatorycollapse set in,” it said.
“Septic shock puts a phenomenal strain on the heart. Eventhe fittest patients need specialist care and medicine tosurvive,” said Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director ofthe British Heart Foundation.
Catholics in Poland filed into churches to pray for theircountry’s most famous son, while small groups of faithfulhuddled together in the Vatican’s vast St Peter’s Square,gazing up at the papal apartments.
“This will be a day of unity for human beings around theworld,” said Elzbieta Zak, a Pole who has lived in Rome for 20years and was praying alongside two nuns.
In churches in Krakow, Poland, where the Pope studied andserved as archbishop, at least twice the usual number offaithful attended early Mass on Friday.
“I didn’t sleep at all last night and I decided to come andpray again this morning before I went to work,” said TeresaPtak at St. Florian’s church, where Karol Wojtyla once workedbefore becoming Pope.
Millions of Catholics in Asia packed churches and heldvigils. “We are all very sad about his failing health,” saidPresident Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines, wherefour out of five people are Catholics.
Underscoring the somber mood, Italian political partieshalted campaigning for regional elections this weekend andPrime Minister Silvio Berlusconi canceled all appointments.
After a pope dies, cardinals from around the world arecalled to Rome to chose a successor at a conclave which startsin the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel 15 to 20 days after the death.
There is no favorite candidate to take over as head of the1.1 billion-member Church, and Wojtyla himself was seen as anoutsider before he was elected in October 1978.
The Pope has grown steadily weaker over the past decade,worn down by debilitating Parkinson’s disease. He has beenseriously ill for most of the past two months and failed torecover from recent throat surgery aimed at helping himbreathe.
Doctors stayed at his side through the night. Senior clergyrushed to the Vatican on Friday morning as his health worsened.
Italian media reported that the Pope’s temperature leapt toaround 40 C (104 F) on Thursday afternoon and his bloodpressure plunged, a day after doctors had inserted a feedingtube through his nose and into his stomach to boost his fadingstrength.
The third-longest-serving pope in history spent 28 days inhospital in two periods in February and March after sufferingbreathing crises.
Once dubbed the “Great Communicator,” he has been unable tospeak in public since he last left hospital on March 13, with atube to help him breathe inserted in his windpipe.
Images of a gaunt, pained John Paul, his body ravaged byParkinson’s and arthritis, contrast starkly to the sprightlyWojtyla who strode onto the world stage on October 16, 1978.
When the little-known cardinal from Krakow was electedPontiff, few could have predicted that the first non-Italianpope in nearly 500 years would throw off the stiff trappings ofthe papacy, travel the globe and leave his mark on history.
Historians say one of his major legacies will remain hisrole in the fall of communism in Europe in 1989.
His orthodox line on many Church teachings, especially onsex, has won favor among many poor-country Catholics butcriticism from liberal believers in developed countries for hisproclamations against contraception, abortion, married priestsand women clergy. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in theVatican City, Andrew Stern in Chicago and Wojciech Zurawski inKrakow)