By Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope John Paul appeared close to death on Friday after heart failure, the Vatican said, sparking an outpouring of emotion and anxiety around the Roman Catholic world.
Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the 84-year-old Pope had received the “Holy Viaticum” communion, reserved for those near death, and had told his aides he did not want to return to hospital for treatment.
A Vatican statement said the Pope was still “conscious, lucid and tranquil” and had taken Mass as dawn broke, but senior clergy indicated his life was ebbing away.
“He is fading serenely,” Polish Cardinal Andrzej Maria Deskur, a close friend, was quoted as saying by Agi news agency. A new health bulletin was due at around 5:30 a.m.-6 a.m. EST, after the Vatican angrily dismissed as “rubbish” Italian media reports that the Pope was in a coma.
Catholics in Poland filed into churches to pray for their country’s most famous son, while small groups of faithful huddled 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 the world,” said Elzbieta Zak, a Pole who has lived in Rome for 20 years and was praying alongside two nuns.
The Pope’s fragile health took a sharp turn for the worse on Thursday evening as he developed a high fever caused by an infection. After initially stabilizing, his condition then deteriorated further, the Vatican said.
“Yesterday afternoon … following a urinary infection, a state of septic shock and cardio-circulatory collapse set in,” the statement said. Septic shock is a life-threatening reaction to a severe infection.
“This morning, the Holy Father’s health condition is very grave.”
After a pope dies, cardinals from around the world are called to Rome to chose a successor at a conclave which starts in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel 15 to 20 days after the death.
There is no favorite candidate to take over as head of the 1.1 billion-member Church and Karol Wojtyla himself was seen as a rank outsider before he was elected in October 1978.
Whoever should replace John Paul faces a daunting challenge. The Pontiff has revolutionized his office and taken his sometimes controversial message far beyond the confines of the tiny Vatican state, making him a truly global figure.
But his health has declined steadily over the past decade, worn down by debilitating Parkinson’s disease. He has been seriously ill for most of the past two months and has failed to recover from recent throat surgery aimed at helping him breathe.
Doctors stayed at the Pope’s side through the night and senior clergy rushed to the Vatican on Friday morning as the health crisis deepened.
“There is certainly a worsening of his situation. The Pope has almost no contact with his surroundings,” Father Konrad Hejmo, a close friend of the Pope and responsible for Polish pilgrims to the Vatican, told Poland’s TVN24 news channel.
In churches in Krakow, Poland, where the Pope studied and served as archbishop, there were at least twice the usual number of faithful attending early morning Mass on Friday.
“I didn’t sleep at all last night and I decided to come and pray again this morning before I went to work,” said Teresa Ptak at St. Florian’s church, where the young Wojtyla did his first pastoral work.
“He has done so much for us that I wanted to do something for him. Today only our prayers can help him.”
Italian media reported that the Pope’s temperature leapt to around 40 C (104 F) on Thursday afternoon and his blood pressure plunged, a day after doctors had inserted a feeding tube into his stomach in an attempt to boost his fading strength.
The third-longest-serving pope in history spent 28 days in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital in two periods in February and March after suffering breathing crises.
Once dubbed the “Great Communicator,” he has been unable to speak in public since he last left hospital on March 13, with a tube to help him breathe inserted in his windpipe.
Images of a gaunt, pained John Paul, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s and arthritis, have offered a stark, gloomy contrast to archive film of the sprightly, smiling Wojtyla striding onto the world stage on October 16, 1978.
When the little-known cardinal from Krakow was elected pontiff, few could have predicted that the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years would throw off the stiff trappings of the papacy, travel the globe and leave his mark on history.
Historians say one of his major legacies will remain his role in the fall of communism in Europe in 1989.
Just over a decade later, the Pope fulfilled another of his dreams. He visited the Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.
He has seemed as much at ease lecturing dictators of the left and the right as he has telling leaders of world democracies that unbridled capitalism and globalization are no panacea for the world’s post-Cold War problems.
But many Catholics, especially in the developed world, have taken issue with his hardline proclamations against contraception, abortion, married priests and women clergy. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in the Vatican City, Andrew Stern in Chicago and Wojciech Zurawski in Krakow)