VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II, the man known as "God's Athlete," who transformed the papacy by taking his message to every corner of the world, died on Saturday aged 84, felled by ailments that left him lame and voiceless.
"Our beloved Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father," Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, said announcing the death to a huge crowd that had gathered under the Pontiff's windows to pray for a miraculous recovery that never came.
The Vatican said the Pope died in his apartments at 9:37 P.M. (2:37 P.M. EST), just as the crowd was serenading the charismatic Polish churchman who led the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.
As the news spread through Rome, thousands upon thousands of faithful streamed up to the Vatican to join those already there, paying respects to a man who helped undermine Communism in Europe while upholding traditional Church orthodoxy.
The exact cause of death was not immediately given but the Pope's health had deteriorated steadily over the past decade with the onset of Parkinson's Disease and arthritis. Earlier this year it took a sharp turn for the worse.
He had an operation in February to ease serious breathing problems, but never regained his strength and last Thursday developed an infection and high fever that soon precipitated heart failure, kidney problems and ultimately death.
"The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd. The world has lost a champion of human freedom and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home," President Bush said in a televised address from the White House.
The slow mourning toll of one of the great bells of St Peter's Basilica made the only sound to cut the stunning, tearful silence in the Vatican.
Necks craned up toward the lighted windows of the Pope's apartments where his once vigorous body now lay lifeless.
According to pre-written Church rules, the Pontiff's mourning rites will last 9 days and his body laid to rest in the crypt underneath St. Peter's Basilica.
Italian media said the funeral would be held on Wednesday.
The conclave to elect a new Pope will start in 15 to 20 days, with 117 cardinals from around the world gathering in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel to choose a successor.
There is no favorite candidate to take over. The former Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was himself regarded as an outsider when he was elevated to the papacy on Oct. 16, 1978.
In his native Poland bells tolled across the country and sirens wailed in the capital Warsaw as news of the Pope's death dashed any lingering hopes of a miraculous recovery.
"I am overwhelmed by pain. I have prayed for two days and thought that a miracle will happen, but it didn't happen and now we can only weep," said Teresa Swidnicka in Krakow, where Wojtyla was once a bishop.
Apart from his battle against communism, John Paul will be also be remembered for his unyielding defense of traditional Vatican doctrines, drawing criticism from liberal Catholics who opposed his proclamations against contraception, abortion, married priests and women clergy.
In death, tributes poured in from around the world.
"John Paul II was one of the greatest men of the last century. Perhaps the greatest," said Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said: "By combating the falsehoods of communism and proclaiming the true dignity of the individual, his was the moral force behind victory in the Cold War."
The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul threw off the stiff trappings of the papacy, meeting ordinary people everywhere he traveled.
In over a quarter century on the world stage, he was both a champion of the downtrodden and an often contested defender of orthodoxy within his own church.
But as the years passed, so his energy faded.
Once a lithe athlete and powerful speaker, he suffered a series of health dramas, including a near-fatal shooting by a Turkish gunman in 1981. By the end of his life he could no longer walk and his voice was often reduced to a raspy whisper.
Earlier this year, the breathing crises silenced the "great communicator" and he failed dramatically in two attempts to address the faithful last Easter Sunday and again on Wednesday.
"We all feel like orphans tonight but our faith teaches us that those who believe in the Lord live in him," Archbishop Renato Boccardo told the crowd at St. Peter's.
A decade after witnessing the fall of communism, the Pope fulfilled another of his dreams. He visited the Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall, asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.
But while many loved the man, his message was less popular and he was a source of deep division in his own church.
Critics constantly attacked his traditionalist stance on family issues, such as his condemnation of contraception and homosexuality. They hope the next Pope will be more liberal.
But John Paul appointed more than 95 percent of the cardinals who will elect his successor, thus stacking the odds that his controversial teachings will not be tampered with.