WASHINGTON, April 2 (UPI) -- The announcement of Pope John Paul II's death Saturday brought tears to the huge crowd in St. Peter's Square. As the largest bell in the basilica began its slow toll of the death knell, there was silence inside the marble embrace of Bernini's colonnade. Then -- surprisingly -- the applause began, hesitant at first, and then enthusiastic, and from all sides. It was the people's salute to the pontiff who had led the Roman Catholic Church with such force and vigor for 26 years.
As it had been so often when he was alive, St. Peter's Square was once again the focal point of the world, flashed across television screens in every continent. What was missing was the iconic, beloved figure in white, bent by age and illness. He would no longer appear at the window of his room in the Vatican Palace. One of the longest living and most forceful, and (it must be said) most controversial pontificates in the history of the church had come to a painful close.
Pope John Paul II's death agony had lasted slightly more than 48 hours. The crowds had gathered on Thursday hoping he would appear at his window, however briefly. By now it was widely accepted that he would be a silent presence: on Feb. 24 he had been hospitalized with serious breathing problems caused by his Parkinson's disease, and a tracheotomy had been performed to ease the problem. On Easter Sunday, and again on Wednesday he had appeared at his window, stooped but apparently cheerful, and had made the sign of the cross with his right hand to bless the crowd.
But on Thursday his windows remained closed; and late that night Vatican officials decided that they had better come clean with the seriousness of his condition. For decades in successive pontificates, the Vatican's customary position on the pope's health has always been "Il papa sta bene" -- the pope is well. But the Vatican revealed that the pope had developed a urinary tract infection and a high fever. John Paul II refused to move once again to hospital, but Vatican sources said his apartments were completely equipped to handle the new crisis in his condition.
On the evening of April 1, a tearful Vatican spokesman Joachim Navarro Valls, the Spanish journalist who has been Pope John Paul II's spokesman since his election, announced that the pope had received the last rites administered to Catholics who are nearing the end of their lives. The Vatican was sufficiently concerned about the pontiff's condition to keep the press office (which usually closed at 3 p.m.) open all night to accommodate the journalists who had begun pouring into the Vatican for a papal deathwatch.
Accommodate, but not necessarily inform. As Pope John Paul's life slid away slowly, the Vatican revealed Saturday afternoon that he was "always conscious" but his condition remained grave.
The crowd in St. Peter's Square had grown enormously by Saturday. What was striking was the number of young people who had known no other pope except Pope John Paul. Rosaries were recited, and hymns sung. But the crowd knew it was not waiting for good news, and the news of his death came at 9.37 p.m. Rome time.
From that moment, the Roman Catholic Church was without a spiritual leader: the throne of St. Peter was empty. The Vatican was officially "sede vacante" -- the vacant see. It would in due course issue a set of postage stamps with the "Sede Vacante" overprint. The man in charge is the Vatican chamberlain -- the Camerlengo -- the Spanish Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo. Virtually every senior Vatican cardinal ceased to hold office. Except for very pressing problems, the work of the central administration of the church has ground to a complete halt.
As more cardinals drift into Rome, the chamberlain holds daily meetings or general congregations. But they are focused on two main tasks, and those alone. The first it to celebrate the life of the dead pope and arrange for his burial, and the other is to arrange for the election of his successor.
It takes nine days to commemorate a dead pontiff and lay him to rest. But after that the church -- if not always its faithful -- moves on. The emphasis is on electing a new pope -- a democratic selection process that picks a pontiff who -- ironically -- will enjoy absolute power.