The Vatican says Pope John Paul II is in "very serious" condition, but that he remains fully conscious. He celebrated an early-morning Mass with his aides, and appointed a number of bishops and other church officials. Sabina Castelfranco in Rome has been closely following the pope's health situation and spoke with VOA's Kent Klein in Washington about the latest.

Klein: "The pope has been through a great many medical scares in the past. Is there a sense that it is different this time, that his health is in greater jeopardy than in the past?"

Castelfranco: "Yes, I think there is certainly a sense that this could be it. The Vatican spokesman issued a statement this morning that was very concerning about the pope's health condition. He [the spokesman] said he [the pope] is in a "grave condition," and that the pope is having trouble breathing, he's got a very unstable blood pressure. So, it really doesn't leave much hope. He's already been going through so many other problems this year. I mean, at the beginning of the year, on February 1, he went to hospital. He was there for 10 days with breathing problems linked to the flu. Then, he came back to the Vatican for 10 days, but then had to be rushed back there for a tracheotomy, and then, yesterday, things really started to deteriorate, when he developed a urinary [tract] infection. He had a very high fever - 40 degrees, Celsius, that is - and things appear to have really deteriorated."

Klein: "What is the atmosphere around the Vatican? Is there an increased number of people outside praying, or demonstrations of any sort?"

Castelfranco: "Yes, certainly this morning, there were a lot of people in St. Peter's Square, hundreds and maybe even thousands, who rushed to the square, stood under his window praying, a lot of people crying. People are concerned. I mean, this is their pope. They've had this pope for 26 years. This is the first pope that came from Eastern Europe, the foreign pope, the strong pope. You know, there's a special sort of connection, I think, here, with this pope, and, they've gotten used to him. They've gotten used to the pope who spoke so many languages. They've gotten used to the pope who traveled the world. They've gotten used to the pope who was so good with young people, who tried to open up to all sorts of religions. I think there are a lot of people here feeling very, very sad that this is the situation and that the pope may have days, or even hours to live."

Klein: "Thinking ahead a bit, once the pope is gone, what happens then? What's the process?"

Castelfranco: "What happens first is he has to be declared dead, and that is done by the papal chamberlain, or camerlengo. What he does is he hits the pope with a little hammer on the forehead, and calls out his name three times, and, when the pope does not respond, then he's declared dead. That announcement is then made to the world. Clearly, before that happens, his apartment is sealed, and then, of course, at the same time, all the cardinals from all over the world - around 120, I think it's 117, at the moment for cardinal electors - will be coming into Rome for the funeral, and state leaders from every single country in the world, I'd expect will be coming to Rome for the funeral. The funeral will be held more than a week after the pope dies. He will lie in state for at least a week, and then, between the 15th and the 20th day, that will be the moment of the conclave, when the cardinals will go into the Sistine chapel to elect a new pope."