“The Holy Father died this evening at 21:37 in his private apartment.
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.”
-Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, announcing the death of Pope John Paul II
IN THE FINAL DAYS, the man who was
never afraid to speak was reduced to silence, the papacy that reached out across the globe confined to a bedroom overlooking St. Peter’s Square. But to more than a billion faithful, Pope John Paul II remained a
potent symbol to the end, proof that the frailty of the body need not diminish the strength of the spirit.
After years of slow decline, the first indication that 84-year-old Karol Wojtyla’s death was rapidly approaching came from
the windows where he had so often addressed his flock during his 26 years as the head of the Roman Catholic Church. On Thursday, as rumours of a new health crisis swirled and a small crowd of journalists and pilgrims gathered outside, the lights of a
room in the papal apartment that contains medical equipment burned late into the evening. Shortly after 11 p.m. came the confirmation, a terse statement from the Vatican press office saying the Pope was receiving treatment for a high fever caused
by a urinary tract infection. More telling was the abrupt change in tone after weeks of denials and optimistic pronouncements.
John Paul had clearly been suffering since a bout of the flu led to a 10-day stay in hospital at the beginning of February. Throat spasms, a consequence of the Parkinson’s disease that had slowly sapped his vitality over the last decade, were making it increasingly difficult to swallow and breathe. On Feb. 24, doctors performed a tracheotomy, which effectively robbed him of his voice. For the first time, the Pope was unable to lead Holy Week celebrations. And his brief public appearances were painful to watch. On Easter Sunday, he struggled for long minutes to pronounce the words “in the name of the father” before he settled for a silent blessing. During his last public appearance at his window on Wednesday, he was similarly frustrated, and looked shockingly frail—Vatican officials later admitted that he had lost close to 42 lb. and that physicians were now feeding him with the aid of a tube.
The iron willpower of the Polish-born Pontiff, which had helped him through so many previous health crises, had reached its limits. On Thursday afternoon, as doctors battled to control the infection, the Pope’s blood pressure plummeted and he went into septic shock, ultimately suffering heart failure. The sacrament of the sick and the dying—formerly called the last rites—was administered that evening. It was the third time John Paul had received that blessing: the first was delivered when he was shot and lost a lot of blood
in a 1981 assassination attempt, the second before his February throat operation.
Throughout Friday, his condition worsened. Vatican spokesman Navarro-Valls fought back tears at a morning press conference as he described how the lucid, conscious and “extraordinarily serene” Pope entered his final hours. As his kidneys and lungs failed, John Paul, attended by a team of doctors, a priest and several Polish nuns, continued to contemplate and pray, choosing to remain in his apartment rather than return to hospital. The Pope participated in a last morning mass, making the sign of the cross and listening closely as an aide read the Biblical account of Christ’s Crucifixion. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, called on people to intensify their prayers. “The Pope is completely abandoned to the will of God,” he said.
By Saturday morning, John Paul was in and out of consciousness. Agonizingly, a word at a time, he gave aides a last message for the faithful outside: “I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.” In a nod to John Paul’s willingness to press technology into the service of faith, the first word of his passing came via email. And Vatican TV proclaimed: “The angels welcome you.” The 70,000strong crowd in St. Peter’s Square honoured the Pope with a final round of applause. Then, at the request of Church officials, they fell silent so they might “accompany the Pope in his first steps to heaven.” Vatican deputy secretary of state Archbishop Leonardo
Sandri summed up the feeling: “We all feel like orphans this evening.”
It was a fitting finale to the extraordinary tenure of an almost accidental Pope. A little-known cleric who had spent much of his career behind the Iron Curtain, Wojtyla emerged as the compromise pick of his fellow cardinals back in October 1978, following the abrupt death of John Paul I just 33 days into his reign. The former bishop of Cracow became the first non-Italian to head the Catholic Church in 455 years. Blessed with seemingly boundless energy, he revolutionized the papacy, travelling over a million kilometres and visiting about 130 countries, including Canada three times. At ease with his flock, telegenic and able to speak eight languages, the Pope quickly sealed his reputation as a powerful ambassador of faith. He was remarkably outspoken, taking on the rulers of the Communist bloc. His travels behind the Iron Curtain and impassioned defence of faith and freedom helped inspire the Solidarity movement in his native Poland, as well as Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Many now give the Pontiff substantial credit for the West’s Cold War victory. “He always kept repeating, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ and we in the Solidarity movement trusted him,” said Lech Walesa, the Gdansk shipyard worker who went on to become Poland’s president.
John Paul was similarly aggressive in his defence of traditional Catholic values, but not always to such popular acclaim. Under his leadership, there was a Vatican crackdown on liberal clerics and theologians. On trips to AIDS-ravaged Africa, the Pope railed against the use of condoms and other forms of birth control. He battled the United Nations on women’s rights and population control. It was a back-to-basics vision of the faith that saw the Church grow by leaps and bounds in the developing world, but shrink in more liberal Europe and North America.
In the end, however, few dwelled on these divisions. Prime Minister Paul Martin, a devout Catholic, called John Paul “a true apostle of peace.” U.S. President George W. Bush mourned him as a champion of freedom. “He was a humble, wise and fearless priest who became one of history’s great moral leaders,” Bush said.
Vigils and special masses were held all over the world, even before the Pope’s passing. On Friday, in Wadowice, Poland, his hometown, people left work early to attend a service at the church where he was
baptized. In Säo Paulo, Brazil, 20,000 gathered to pray. There were similar services at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and in Paris’s Notre Dame. At St. Mary’s Cathedral in Calgary, Belva Halter prayed for the Pontiff. “He’s done so much for our Catholic faith and reached out to so many
people around the world,” Halter said. “We’re going to miss him greatly.”
Speculation has already begun about who will be charged with carrying on the global legacy of John Paul. But his accomplishments and activism will cast a long shadow over the next papacy. After more
VIEW OUR photo essay of the Pope’s 1984 cross-Canada tour at www.macleans.ca/gallery
than a quarter-century of leadership, Karol Wojtyla is the only pope many Catholics have ever known. On Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto’s Little Poland, Teddy Idzik, a 23year-old university student, wiped away a tear as he contemplated the future. “He’s been an inspiration to me and so many others,” said Idzik. “Whose life hasn’t he touched?”
WITH BRIAN BERGMAN IN CALGARY AND JOHN INTINI IN TORONTO
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.