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.
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.
"I'm Polish. For us, he was a father," said pilgrim Beata Sowa.
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.
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.
Pope John Paul II, before entering into the state of diminished consciousness, whispered to his personal secretary the eloquent phrase: “I am happy, be it yourselves as well.”
According to the Saturday issue of the Italian daily Il Secolo XIX, the Pope pronounced these moving words to Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, his personal secretary and right hand from his days as Archbishop of Krakow (Poland.)
The message was mainly addressed to the priests and religious who have been serving the Pontiff in the last months.
Nevertheless, the phrase, according to the Italian daily, has become a “testament” for all the faithful around the world.