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Pope John Paul II died on Saturday at the age of 84, ending a 26-year reign that is likely to go down as one of the most memorable in the 2,000 year history of Christianity.

The pope died at 9:37pm Rome time in his private Vatican apartment, the Vatican said in a statement on Saturday.

His death was immediately announced to a 60,000 strong crowd of priests, nuns and ordinary believers packed in St Peter's Square. The crowd absorbed the news in stunnned silence, but many people wept openly.

Within two hours of his death an estimated 130,000 people had gathered into the square, and the city of Rome prepared for an influx of pilgrims.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state and number two in the Church hierarchy, then lead the crowd in mourning by intoning the ceremonial 'De Profundis' lament for the dead.

By Sunday morning, St Peter’s Square was packed again with tens of thousands attending mass for the repose of Pope John Paul’s soul led by Cardinal Sodano.

Pope John Paul II’s body was then displayed at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, for officials of the Roman Curia, authorities and the diplomatic corps to pay their respects. The Vatican’s television channel broadcast images of the Pope’s body dressed in red and white vestments and wearing a white mitre, with his crozier - a bishop’s staff - under his arm, in the Sala Clementina, a frescoed hall in the Vatican. He was flanked by two of the Vatican’s Swiss guards. The body was expected to be transferred to St. Peter’s basilica on Monday around 1500 GMT for public viewing, the Vatican said. His funeral is expected by Friday.

The news of the pope's death spread rapidly around the world, plunging its 1.1bn Roman Catholics into mourning and inspiring tributes to John Paul II from across the globe that hailed him as one of the towering personalities of the 20th century.

George W. Bush, US president, on Saturday called the pope “a hero for the ages” and “a champion of freedom”. Tony Blair, UK prime minister, expressed “deep sorrow” for the pontiff’s passing.

Lech Walesa, who led Poland’s Solidarity movement, said, “(Without him) there would be no end of communism or at least much later and the end would have been bloody.”

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said: “Pope John Paul II wrote history. By his efforts and through his impressive personality, he changed our world.”

His increasingly poor health, marked by Parkinson's Disease, arthritis, loss of speech and finally kidney and heart failure, gave way one week after celebrations of Easter in which he was able to play virtually no part.

Virtually to the end, the Vatican said the pope was involved in taking decisions such as the appointment of bishops to national churches. But on Wednesday doctors started feeding him through a nasal tube to ease the effects of tracheotomy he underwent in February.

The Vatican’s release of the official death certificate on Sunday for the first time officially acknowledged that the pope had Parkinson’s disease, it was reported, and confirmed that he had died of septic shock and an irreversible cardio-circulatory collapse.

Joaquin Navarro Valls, the Vatican spokesman, said in a statement on Saturday that the procedures for electing the next pope had come into immediate effect.

These will culminate in a conclave of cardinals, which will be held 15 to 20 days after the pope's death in the Vatican's Sistene Chapel under the frescoe of Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement'.

In the short term, John Paul's death will open a period of uncertainty for the Church and its 1.1bn worldwide faithful, as there is no clear front-runner to succeed him among the 117 cardinals who will elect the next pontiff.

In the longer term, the new pope will face a daunting task in healing the divisions of a Church split by John Paul's conservative teachings on social and ethical issues, ranging from the role of women in organised religion to contraception and divorce.

The next pope will also have to guide the Church's delicate relationships with Islam and other world religions.

Some 20th century conclaves produced widely anticipated results, but Vatican specialists note that many experts did not expect John Paul II's election in 1978, not least because he was Polish and the first non-Italian choice in 455 years.

All but three of the current 117 cardinal-electors have been appointed to their posts by John Paul himself, making it difficult for the next pope, even if he were so inclined, to alter the teachings of a pontiff who was one of the towering political and religious personalities of his era.

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