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A youthful 58 when elected in 1978, Pope John Paul II experienced health problems early. He was shot and almost killed in 1981 and spent several months in the hospital being treated for abdominal wounds and a blood infection. In later years, he suffered a dislocated shoulder, a broken thigh bone, arthritis of the knee and an appendectomy. He stopped walking in public in 2003 and stopped celebrating public liturgies in 2004.
In his later years, Pope John Paul II spoke with increasing frequency about his age, his failing health and death. He was determined to stay at the helm of the church, but also said he was prepared to be called to the next life.
"It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the kingdom of God. At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life," he said in a 1999 letter written to the world's elderly.
The pope continued: "And so I often find myself saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the Eucharist: 'In hora mortis meae voca me, et iube me venire ad te' (at the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you). This is the prayer of Christian hope," he said.
In the hours before his death in April 2005, prayers went up on the pope's behalf from all over the world, from China to the pope's native Poland, from Christians and non-Christians. Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, came to St. Peter's Square to pray, saying he wanted to offer "a sign of participation" with the church.
As the pope lay dying, journalists who tried to enter the square were turned away unless they were coming to pray. The world's media arrived in unprecedented force, surrounding the Vatican with broadcasting trucks and film crews. A supplementary press office was prepared for the thousands of reporters expected to arrive for the pope's funeral and the conclave.
The Vatican's Web site was overloaded soon after the pope's situation took a turn for the worse, and the Vatican switchboard was jammed. E-mail messages also poured in, offering prayers and condolences. More than 25,000 fill St. Peter's Square to pray for dying pope.
The city of Rome announced plans to deal with the flood of visitors to Rome in the days after the pope's death. A special bus line ran directly to the Vatican from the train station, and officials set up tents around the Vatican to provide assistance to pilgrims.
When Pope John Paul II made his first public appearance after his election in 1978, "he said, 'Do not be afraid. Throw open the doors to Christ,'" said the pope's vicar for Vatican City.
"This evening or tonight Christ will throw open his doors to the pope," said the vicar, Archbishop Angelo Comastri.
Leading the recitation of the rosary in St. Peter's Square at 9 p.m. April 1, 2005, Archbishop Comastri said, "when one's father is suffering, his children suffer and when he is dying, his children gather around him."
The recitation of the rosary, he said, was an expression of Catholics' love for the pope and desire to be with him at the end of his life. In honor of the pope, the Marian prayer followed the mysteries of light, five reflections on Jesus' life that Pope John Paul added to the traditional rosary prayers in 2002.
Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, spoke to reporters near St. Peter's as the rosary was about to begin.
"Christ will provide for the church," the cardinal said, "and let us hope that he will find a successor as strong as Pope John Paul II. He was truly a strong man, and I think it will be difficult to find someone with the kind of strength he demonstrated."
More than 25,000 people filled the square to pray for the pope. The crowd gradually diminished throughout the night, although a core group of about 200 young people spent the night in the square praying, singing and every once in a while breaking into the chant, "Giovanni Paolo Secondo," (John Paul II).
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said on April 2, 2005, that the pope was told the young people were there and, "he seemed to be referring to them when, in his words and repeated several times, he seemed to have said the following sentence: 'I have looked for you. Now you have come to me. And I thank you.'"
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