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Shock, sorrow in St. Peter's

Associated Press

Vatican City — The crowd of many thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square went suddenly silent when a Vatican official announced Pope John Paul II had died.

Then they started to clap — an Italian tradition by which mourners show their appreciation for important figures who have passed away. Many wept as others tried to comfort them.

A group of youths began to sing, "Halleluja, he will rise again," as one strummed a guitar. Others resumed reciting the rosary; a priest raised a Polish flag partly draped with a black cloth. Some prayed in silence, kneeling facing the pope's apartments.

"I will forever remember when he played with young people, when he was happy," said Danuta Wojtaszczyk, 27, a Polish woman gathered with other Poles in the square. "For us, he is a great man of our people. He is the greatest of men."

Bells tolled at the Vatican and across Rome as flags of the Vatican, Italy and the European Union were lowered to half-staff.

Giulio La Rosa, a 23-year-old student in Rome, burst into tears.

"I'm not a believer, but I came here because I believe in him as a builder of freedom," he said.

About three hours after the death, the crowd again broke into applause for several minutes, and a cleric leading the faithful in prayers shouted from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica: "Viva il Papa!", or "Long live the pope!"

"He was a marvelous man. Now he's no longer suffering," Concetta Sposato, a pilgrim, said tearfully. She had been on her way to St. Peter's to pray when she heard of his death.

"My father died last year. For me, it feels the same," said Elisabetta Pomacalca, a 25-year-old Peruvian who lives in Rome.

Katie Brennan, a student from the University of Maryland, said she looked around in wonder at the crowd.

"All the different people, from different races and different religions, that are all here for the same reason: to respect the passing of someone who's done a lot for this world," she said.

Simone Bellato, a 22-year-old student, sat cross-legged on the cobblestones smoking a cigarette following the announcement. He was surrounded by a display of offerings with lit candles, prayer cards, rosaries and a bouquet of lilies.

"For once, while the pope was suffering, the whole world prayed together. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, the Orthodox, only he could have done it," Ms. Bellato said.

Everywhere candles flickered in St. Peter's Square. A group formed a cross on the cobblestones using small prayer candles. Others melted the candles directly onto the paving stones or placed them on the edge of the fountains and pedestals of streetlights.

Some used their wax to melt letters of affection to the pope onto the pavement, others left behind rose petals and bouquets.

"I haven't lost a pope but THE pope, the only pope I ever knew in my whole life," Cristiana Bianco, 24, said.

Traffic on the streets leading to the Vatican was brought to a standstill as thousands more people tried to reach St. Peter's Square.

Nearby newsstands repeatedly ran out of special editions of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, and had to ration copies to the long lines of people hoping to buy one.

Officials, meanwhile, estimated early Sunday that the crowd in and around St. Peter's had swelled to about 100,000. Late Saturday night, some exhausted people wrapped themselves in blankets or rested in sleeping bags.

Earlier in the day, officials had begun preparing for the elaborate rituals marking a pope's death and for accommodating the tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to converge on Rome.

Workmen in cherry-pickers began dismantling the canopy that normally stands on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica to shield the pope from the sun during outdoor Masses. One workman told The Associated Press the space had to be cleared for John Paul's funeral.

Portable toilets and ambulances appeared in greater numbers near the Vatican on Saturday, and the city transport system said it was increasing service on bus and subway lines stopping at St. Peter's. Some city buses began skipping intermediate stops to rush pilgrims straight from Rome's main train station to St. Peter's Square.

City officials lined up fairground pavilions and sport stadiums to house the faithful, and the Italian state railway said it was adding more trains to bring the faithful direct to Rome.

In John Paul's native Poland, the national carrier LOT said its Rome-bound flights were nearly full for Sunday and Monday, and that every second or third call was from someone looking to book a flight to Rome.

In Vatican City, the Vatican post office announced it was issuing a special stamp when the pope died, which can only be used until a new pope is elected. According to tradition, the "vacant See" stamp will carry an image of two crossed keys but no papal mitre. The traditional image on Vatican stamps issued while a pope is alive has the keys and the mitre — his tall headdress.

By the time a night prayer service began in St. Peter's Square before the John Paul's death, some 60,000 people had gathered to offer spiritual comfort to the pope.

"We are here praying for him while he is about to set out on his last voyage," American Cardinal Edmund Szoka, a Vatican official, told the crowd during the service.

Under a lamppost in the center of the square some had left candles and a bouquet of tiny yellow flowers with a note attached, written in a child's handwriting, which said, "Stay with us John Paul, don't leave us."

A 6-year-old child from Sri Lanka, William Thlaika, was in the square with his mother, clutching a portrait of the pope clad in his traditional white vestments that he had drawn for John Paul.

"He's a good pope. He loves me and I love him too," the boy said.

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