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Pope's fading health unites faithful in prayer

The faithful lit candles, prayed and reflected on Pope John Paul II’s legacy Saturday as he neared death.
Thai children light candles for Pope John Paul II during a mass at Assumption church in Phuket, Thailand
Thai children light candles for Pope John Paul II during a mass at the Assumption church in Phuket province, about 536 miles south of Bangkok, Thailand, on Saturday.Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The faithful lit candles, prayed and reflected on Pope John Paul II’s legacy Saturday as he neared death. Protestants, Muslims, Jews and even atheists praised a man whose work for peace and unity made few religious distinctions.

Italy suspended all weekend sport events — including Serie A soccer, a playoff for the Italian ice hockey title, basketball and volleyball league matches, and amateur sports — as a sign of respect for the critically ill pontiff.

In his weekly radio address, President Bush said the pope has been “a faithful servant of God and a champion of human dignity and freedom.”

“Laura and I join millions of Americans and so many around the world who are praying for the Holy Father,” he said.

At Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, worshippers and tourists lit candles beneath a photo of a hale John Paul taken in 1997, a reminder of the pontiff’s vigor before sickness took its toll.

“It’s a time of sadness and a real time of reflection on what the pope has done in his 26 years as pope,” said Mike Miller, an American visitor.

Around the world, at shrines, churches and cathedrals, special Masses celebrated the pope for his youthful vigor that transformed the church and for his recent courage in confronting death.

“He taught us how to bear suffering and illness,” Bishop Robert Brucato told several hundred worshippers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Friday. “Now he is teaching us to die.”

“I hope he goes peacefully,” said Andy Vucinich, attending Mass in Louisville, Ky. “I’m not even a Catholic. I came over to the church when I heard he was dying.”

Prayers in native country
In his native Poland, a dozen elderly women prayed for John Paul through the night in St. Mary’s church in Wadowice, the southern Polish town where he was born. As the sun rose, townspeople and foreigners joined them, including Croats who made a detour from a trip to Prague to pray for the pontiff in the church where he was baptized.

In nearby Krakow, where John Paul rose from young priest to cardinal, a small group stood at first light beneath the so-called “papal window” in the Krakow Curia, where then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla lived before becoming pope. He would appear to speak with young people during papal visits to Poland.

“This has been the longest morning for me in my entire life,” said Jadwiga Byrska, 42, a retiree who had been at the square for hours. “I am waiting for news from the Vatican. The news from yesterday was very bad. But everything is in God’s hands now.”

The first non-Italian pope in centuries, John Paul had a manner that made people around the world think of him as their own. Mexicans chanted during his five visits: “Juan Pablo, brother, you are already Mexican!” Brazilians reacted with delight when John Paul declared himself “carioca,” a term for people from Rio de Janeiro. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said Friday that “in a certain sense, he was American.”

Sympathy crosses religious boundaries
Even non-Catholics embraced John Paul, crediting him for ending wars, spreading democracy and combating religious animosity. John Paul transformed the papacy from an arbiter of religious doctrine to a global advocate for peace, understanding and responsibility.

John Paul II has been an “excellent” pope, said Alfred Donath, head of the Swiss Confederation of Hebrew Congregations. “He worked to bring Jews and the Catholic Church closer together. He was the first Pope to visit a synagogue. He also traveled to Israel and visited the Wailing Wall. We’ll never forget that he presented his excuses to the victims of the Holocaust for the attitude of Catholics during the Second World War.”

But there were muted criticisms, too.

Hafid Ouardiri, spokesman for the Geneva mosque, said Muslims would remember the pope’s efforts “for peace and dialogue among communities” but added: “It seems to us that there was a personality cult surrounding Jean Paul II that was close to idolatry, which for a Muslim is a sin. The Pope has taken too big a place compared to the church, and that’s damaged him.”

And John Paul’s position on AIDS “was not constructive,” said Christopher Park, president of Swiss AIDS campaign group Groupe Sida Geneve. “We ended up with confusion between Jean Paul II’s stance and the AIDS epidemic, which was a dangerous simplification.”

Thoughts of succession
Many faithful worried who could succeed him. As the pope’s condition worsened and prayers for recovery turned to entreaties for John Paul’s eternal rest, talk also turned to the man who would follow him in the papacy.

In Latin America and Africa, where the number of Catholics has burgeoned in recent years, many expressed hope that the next pope might be one of their own.

“If the pope comes from Africa, we will be celebrating throughout this year,” said Juliana Okuo, 32, in Lagos, Nigeria.

But many said that no matter where he comes from, it will be tough to find another pope as beloved as John Paul.

“I don’t believe in God,” said Victor Hugo Pares, a self-described communist in the Cuban capital, Havana. “But if there is a God, let him send us a pope as good as this one.”