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JOHN PAUL THE GREAT: 130,000 people.. but I could still hear the tap of footsteps on the cobbles; SILENCE, THEN CROWD CHANTS HIS NAME.

Byline: ALEXANDRA WILLIAMS in the Vatican City

WITHOUT warning, the tens of thousands of people crammed into Vatican City began clapping and chanting. "Giovanni Paolo, Giovanni Paolo," they shouted.

Over and over again Pope John Paul II's name reverberated around the walls of the historic buildings.

It was a fitting end to yesterday's solemn mass in St Peter's Square, in which more than 130,000 people prayed for the soul of their beloved leader.

Thirteen hours earlier I stood in the same spot when his death was announced.

The 84-year-old Pope, who had led the Catholic church with such vigour and force for 26 years, had died at 9.37pm in his top floor apartment overlooking the square.

The lights had suddenly gone out. People looked at each other, not daring to quite believe this was the end.

But moments later the presence of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, on the steps of the basilica confirmed their fears. Addressing the vast carpet of people he said: "The Pope has returned to the House of the Father."

Undersecretary of State Archbishop Leonardo Sandri added: "We are all orphans this evening."

The huge bronze doors leading to the Sistine Chapel were closed, an ancient ritual performed on the death of a pope.

Then modern technology intervened and the beep beep of text messages could be heard alerting people to the news.

Shortly after 10pm the Vatican's great bell began its sonorous, slow toll of the death knell.

Churches across Rome followed. Within an hour St Peter's Square was full.

Bernini's marble colonnade that borders the square embraced the crowd, acting like two huge protective arms cradling those who had come to pay their respects.

Yet despite the overwhelming number of people there was silence. A truly bewildering, awe inspiring and dignified silence that I have never experienced.

There were more than 100,000 people, more than at most football matches or pop concerts, yet I could hear the tap of footsteps on the cobblestones and the cascade of water from the square's two fountains.

Those who spoke did not raise their voices above a whisper.

THE Pope had prepared himself for death. He refused to go to hospital to die, choosing instead to remain in the Vatican. And he stayed in the public eye for as long as possible, not hiding the speechlessness and paroxysms of a dying man.

When the news came there was an outpouring of emotion. People fell to their knees and prayed. Others buried their heads in their hands and wept. But there was a calm too. Nuns huddled around and murmured passages from the Bible.

Then applause began. It was hesitant at first but became enthusiastic. It was a salute to the Polish Pope who had shepherded the world's billion Catholics.

People had immediately left what they were doing. One woman I met had not even taken off her apron in her haste to reach the square. She had heard the news on her radio in the kitchen.

Maria Nicolosi, 74, said: "I feel this loss as if he was one of my own. I loved that man, all of Rome loved him. He was such a brave and dignified man."

A group of lads who had been drinking in a suburban bar rushed to the scene. One, Peter Pettrichio, 18, said: "I don't go to church every week but I pray for this great man."

Many spoke warmly about the Pope's struggle over the last few days, saying they were among his most impressive, living out his message that there can be serenity even in the heart of suffering.

Alexis Jacoba, 70, said: "At last he is with God. His suffering is finished." Lorenzo Costa, 25, said: "I was at home but there is nowhere else to be tonight but here."

A homeless man with his Jack Russell dog sat for hours gazing up at the Pope's apartment. He would not give his name but wanted to tell how the Pope had touched his hands on two occasions.

He said: "He understood the needs of the less fortunate. He was a man of the people, not someone in high office who forgot about the likes of me. I met him twice in this square and we touched hands. I will never forget him."

FLAGS from Latin America and Africa, Croatia and the Ukraine were laid out on the cobbles. Banners read: "We love you Papa." Wellwishers from Poland remembered the Pope's part in ending Communism.

Some people wore black. Others carried flowers or held photos of him.

At the requiem mass the number of young people was striking. Many had bedded down in sleeping bags overnight.

Cardinal Sodano opened it by saying: "We entrust to God our Pope John Paul II. For 26 years he invited us to look at Christ, the only reason for our hope. He brought to the squares of the world the gospel of hope. This is our faith.

"Thinking of this, our pain is immediately transformed in a feeling of deep serenity." He said he had been present at the Pope's bedside and witnessed his dignity and "deep agony".

The impression of the Pope's final years was of an old man crippled by arthritis and Parkinson's Disease who needed 24-hour medical attention. Yet he will be remembered as a morally and politically towering figure. People are already referring to him as John Paul the Great, a title usually reserved for saints.

The outpouring of affection and admiration is a reflection on the man and his impact.

Tracey Morgan, 48, from Portsmouth, summed up the feelings of many: "I didn't believe in his views on contraception or married and female priests. But who could not respect him? He gave his life to the church and brought happiness to literally millions of people and gave a voice to the poor."

Time will tell if he managed to shape the outlook of the Catholic church for decades to come. If he has not, it will not have been for want of effort. An effort he extended through to his dying days by bringing death and suffering into the open. He taught us how to die with dignity and without fear.

CAPTION(S):

VAST: Crowds at the Vatican; Picture: AFP/GETTY; GRIEF: A nun weeps; Picture: REUTERS
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 4, 2005
Words:1055
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