By Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 4/5/2005 10:08:57 AM ET 2005-04-05T14:08:57

12 p.m. ET

Three tolls of a solitary bell rang from the tower of St. Peter’s Basilica, indicating to the world that he was gone.  A set of three tolls of a bell, repeated three times, indicates that a man has died.  This is from an old Catholic tradition known as “passing bells.”

It is in the third hour of his crucifixion that Christians believe Jesus died on the cross.  Now those three bells announce the death of Karol Wotylja, the favorite son of Catholicism. 

Known to the world as Pope John Paul II, his 26-year reign saw the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall that separated East and West and stood as an immovable and constant reminder of atrocity and heartache.  This Pope proclaimed after two millenniums that the Jews did not kill Jesus.  His reign brought about exponential growth of the Church in the far reaches of third world Africa and Southeast Asia.  In China, a communist nation that oppresses organized religion, over 12 million have proclaimed they are Catholic.

This man’s life was no brief candle, but rather a seemingly eternal flame.  He survived illness, the loneliness of being left an orphan with no family, and an assassin’s bullet.  Three bullets, in fact.

Now that flame has been extinguished, and the faithful believe that his spirit is rising to his final and rightful destination, no doubt a throne very near to his Creator.

A hundred thousand gathered peacefully and reverently in the piazza, holding candles and praying out loud.  Many stayed through the long and drizzly night, eyes fixed on the lights of the papal apartment.  They chanted, “Stay with us” and “Don’t leave us.”

Around the world, a billion Catholics and billions more people of other faiths, even of no faith at all, watched and waited.  The very sound of this robust chorus was perhaps enough support to lift him to the unreachable heights of heaven.

Those same billions wait now for another sign from a tower.  This time, not bells to signify the end of a reign, but smoke to announce the beginning of a new one.

A new day dawns for the Catholic Church, and with it comes the problems and realities of 21st Century life. 

In America, a most unflattering trinity of child abuse scandals, dissipating numbers of clergy, and the eroding of financial support are creating a crisis of faith in a former stronghold. 

In other regions of the world, the scourge of AIDS and the challenge of religious oppression present obstacles.  Citizens of the United States, while still working toward the creation of a more perfect democracy, do not know the fears of true religious persecution, the need to gather in darkened and secluded space in order to worship.

Over the coming days and weeks, we will bring you a look at the issues the next Pontiff will grapple with as well as informed insight into the rites and ritual we will observe.

Send us your thoughts and questions, and we’ll keep you Connected.

Connected@MSNBC.com

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