Pope John Paul II has died at the age of 84 after leading the Roman Catholic Church for more than 26 years. The Polish-born pontiff died after suffering heart and kidney failure following two hospitalizations in as many months.
News of John Paul's passing was delivered to tens-of-thousands of people who gathered in Saint Peter's Square to light candles and pray for the pope by the Vatican's deputy secretary of state, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri. "Dear brothers and sisters," he said, "at 9:37, our beloved Holy Father, John Paul II, has returned to the house of the Lord. Let us pray for him."
As they heard the news, some in the crowd raised their hands to their faces in disbelief, while others began sobbing uncontrollably. For many, John Paul was the only pope they ever knew.
John Paul's death marks the end of a reign that revolutionized the papacy. He traveled to more than 120 countries to minister to his widespread flock of more than one-billion people. He built bridges to other faiths and confessions, and he spoke out forcefully in favor of the world's poor and oppressed.
He will perhaps be most remembered for his role in the fall of communism in his native Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.
He was a fierce defender of traditional Catholic values, and his opposition to abortion, contraception and homosexuality sparked opposition among many Catholics in western countries. But he also preached against rampant consumerism and unfettered capitalism, and spoke out against the Iraq War.
The task of choosing a successor to John Paul now falls upon the 117-member college of cardinals. After the nine-day official mourning period for John Paul, the cardinals will begin a series of secret votes in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, until they agree on who should be the next pontiff. Ninety-five percent of the cardinals were appointed by John Paul, in what Vatican observers say was his attempt to make sure that the next pope would not break away from the doctrinal line he laid down during his long reign.