The Vatican has issued a terse statement describing Pope John Paul II's condition as very serious, and says the pope developed a high fever Saturday. The latest statement comes hours after the Vatican acknowledged that the pontiff was slipping in and out of consciousness.

The pope's high fever follows the first signs that he is slowly losing consciousness, indicating that he is edging ever closer to death.

On Friday, the Vatican said John Paul's heart and kidneys were failing, his breathing was becoming more labored and his blood pressure had fallen to what it described as dangerously low levels.

But the Vatican insists the pope is not in a coma, and that he opens his eyes when spoken to. Or, as the Vatican put it in its last statement, he "responds correctly" when addressed by members of his household.

As John Paul's health has taken a sharp downward turn over the past two days, tens-of-thousands of well-wishers have gathered in Saint Peter's Square to light candles and pray for the only pope many of them have known. He has ruled the Roman Catholic Church for nearly 27 years.

Many of these pilgrims, like American Heidi Metzger, say they feel the need to be with other Catholics at a time like this

"I just felt the need to come to the Square. I am Catholic," she explained. "And I wanted to come to pray with the other pilgrims for this pope. He's been our pope for so long. I thought it was actually a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, I wanted to come and be with the other people."

Among the crowd Friday night were people from nearly every nationality, mirroring the scope of a global church of more than one-billion souls. The peace and calm prevailing among the pilgrims reflected that of John Paul himself, said by one cardinal Friday to be fading serenely in the face of death.

But some of the pilgrims, like Sister Jarmala, a nun from India, could not hide their sadness at the inevitable passing of a pope who has traveled to more than 120 countries to minister to his widespread flock.

"Terrible. Tremendous. Very sad indeed. Sad. Seeing the suffering of the Holy Father," she said.

As a sign of respect to the pope, the Italian football league canceled all games scheduled for Sunday. That move follows the suspension by Italian political parties of campaigning for regional elections this weekend.