John Paul II near death: Vatican

Pope John Paul II was near death Friday, his breathing shallow and his heart and kidneys failing, the Vatican said.

Tens of thousands of people kept vigil at St. Peter's Square Friday night awaiting news of Pope John Paul II's condition, but by dawn Saturday, those numbers had diminished.

Many of the 70,000 who had gathered near the Pope's Rome residence wrapped themselves in blankets to keep warm as they listened to hymns and prayed, on bended knee, along with a variety of priests and cardinals.

"This evening or this night, Christ opens the door to the Pope," Vatican City vicar general Angelo Comastri told the faithful, many of them crying as they prayed.

The Pope's health has worsened and he is near death, the Vatican confirmed Friday.

A statement issued midday by the Vatican said the 84-year-old's breathing had grown shallow and his kidneys were failing as his blood pressure dropped.

An Italian newspaper reported that the Pope left word that his aides were not to weep for him. The Pope's note, written with the help of his private secretary, reportedly said, "I am happy, and you should be as well. Let us pray together with joy."

Earlier Friday morning Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls reported the pontiff was "lucid, fully conscious and extraordinarily serene" and had participated in mass at his Vatican apartment.

Navarro-Valls added that the Pope requested aides read the biblical passage describing the 14 stations of the Way of the Cross, and the scripture referred to as the "Third Hour." According to Christian tradition, Christ died at 3 o' clock in the afternoon.

At one point Friday morning, Italian media reported that readings from John Paul's brain monitor had gone flat, but Vatican sources countered that by saying his brain and heart were still active.

The Pope has been suffering from septic shock linked to a urinary tract infection.

Septic shock leads to low blood pressure and low blood flow, causing the brain, heart, kidneys and liver to function poorly or fail altogether. Fatal in 50 per cent of the cases in which in occurs, it most often affects the very old and the very young, as well as those with a variety of illnesses.

The Pope's health has not been good in recent years because of a combination of Parkinson's disease and arthritis, but it began deteriorating rapidly at the beginning of February, when he was rushed to Rome's Gemelli hospital suffering from flu-related breathing problems.

After a relapse three weeks later, doctors performed a tracheotomy to open the Pope's breathing passages.

He went on to lose about 40 pounds, leading doctors to insert a feeding tube on March 30 to help him take nourishment.

The Vatican said he received the sacrament known as the Anointing of the Sick, commonly called Last Rites, on Thursday night.

First non-Italian pope since 1523

John Paul II, the world's 264th Pope, was born in Poland in 1920.

An actor and stonecutter as a young man, Karol Josef Wojtyla became a priest at the age of 26, a bishop at 38 and a cardinal at 47.

In 1978, at the age of 58, he was elected by his fellow cardinals, becoming the youngest pope in the 20th century and the first non-Italian one since 1523.

John Paul visited Canada three times during his papacy, in 1984, 1987 and 2002.

About 44 per cent of Canadians consider themselves Roman Catholics, according to the latest census figures available.