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Pope Clinging to Life, Faithful Gather in Prayer

Pope John Paul II's health continues to deteriorate, and Vatican officials are suggesting that he is close to death. The Pontiff's health took a turn for the worse over the past 24 hours.

The Pope is clinging to life at his apartment at the Vatican. Officials there say the 84-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic church is suffering from a weak heart and deteriorating kidney function. They say his blood pressure is dangerously low. And they say his breathing has become shallow. They describe the Pontiff's condition as very grave.

The Vatican strongly denies reports in the Italian media that the Pope has died. Earlier in the day, the Vatican dismissed Italian media reports that the Pope had slipped into a coma. One cardinal says John Paul II is, in his words, fading serenely.

Catholics in Rome and elsewhere are flocking to churches to light candles and pray for the Polish clergyman who became Pope in 1978 and revitalized the Papacy. Tens of thousands of people are gathered in Saint Peter's Square.

On the other side of town, in front of the Basilica of Saint John the Lateran, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Pope's vicar as Bishop of Rome and head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, celebrated a public mass attended by top Vatican officials, members of the Italian government and ordinary citizens

John Paul, the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, has ruled over his church for nearly 27 years, making him the third-longest-serving Pope in history. His moral authority and international diplomacy played a part in the fall of communism in his native Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. But he has also been a severe critic of western materialism and spoke out against the Iraq War.

Many Catholics have seen his battle against physical suffering as an affirmation of the church's teaching that human life has dignity and value, irrespective of physical frailties. But others have been concerned that his slow decline into immobility and speechlessness following a tracheotomy in February was raising questions about his ability to run the church.