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World awaits word on pope's condition

Pontiff clings to life, as faithful pray and weep

Cardinal Camillo Ruini celebrates a Mass for the pope in Rome.
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Pope John Paul II

VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II edged closer to death Saturday morning -- his breathing shallow and his heart and kidneys failing -- as the world awaited the conclusion of his medical crisis.

The last Vatican bulletin, issued Friday night, indicated the 84-year-old pope's health was failing on many fronts and he was only intermittently conscious.

By daybreak Saturday, the tens of thousands who had gathered to pray and wait in St. Peter's Square had dwindled to almost no one.

A crowd was expected to form again as the day progressed.

High above the square, the lights still burned in the papal apartments, where the pontiff has lived since his election in 1978.

During a rosary service in the square Friday night, Monsignor Angelo Comastri, the vicar of Vatican City, said that soon "Christ will open the doors to the pope."

At St. John Lateran Church in Rome, during a Mass for the pope's health, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, said John Paul had "abandoned himself to the hands of Christ."

In Krakow, Poland, where John Paul served as archbishop before becoming pope, thousands of people gathered at the archbishop's residence, many carrying candles and crying. The crowd prayed and sang for their fellow Pole.

Alicja Kapusciarz, a Polish-American woman in Washington, said relatives she has talked with in her homeland are "devastated" by news that the pope is near death.

"To Polish people, he is an icon," she said. "He is the best thing since sliced bread. He's amazing."

In Los Angeles, California, about 3,000 parishioners prayed for the pope during regular noon services at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, some of them weeping at bulletins about his health.

"Through prayers, we will help escort him into the Lord's hands," said Cardinal Roger Mahony, the leader of the Los Angeles archdiocese, the nation's largest.

Friday evening, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope's breathing had become shallow, his blood pressure had furthered weakened and his kidney function was deteriorating.

But he said the pope remained conscious and was "joining the continual prayers of those assisting him."

The pope's condition began deteriorating rapidly Thursday, after a urinary tract infection caused a high fever, leading to septic shock and collapse of his cardiocirculatory system.

He was administered the sacrament of anointing the sick, formerly known as last rites or extreme unction, Thursday night.

Despite his precarious health, Navarro-Valls said, the pope wished to remain in his residence at the Vatican, rather than returning to Gemelli hospital in Rome, where he has been hospitalized twice since February.

"What I'm hearing from Rome, if my information is correct, is that the Holy Father is sinking," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington and a leading American prelate.

"We'll pray that the Lord -- who must love this man very much, because this man loves him very much -- that the Lord will take him peacefully to himself, if that's his will right now," McCarrick said.

The pope had a number of visitors Friday, including the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and other leading cardinals.

The pope suffers from a number of chronic illnesses, including crippling hip and knee ailments and Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that can make breathing and swallowing difficult.

On February 24, doctors performed a tracheotomy to help him breathe, as he struggled to recover from a bout of flu that hospitalized him.

A feeding tube was put down his nose into his stomach Wednesday to provide additional nutrition.

The feeding tube was inserted shortly after the pope's regular weekly audience, where he appeared at the window of his study overlooking St. Peter's Square for about four minutes.

Unable to speak, he used hand gestures to bless thousands of people who gathered for a glimpse of him.

On Easter Sunday, the pope also tried to speak to the crowds but could not get out the words. Ill health forced him to miss several events during Holy Week preceding Easter.

Friday, the Vatican press office issued a list of 17 new papal appointments, including bishops and archbishops, and announced that John Paul had accepted the resignations of six archbishops.

The appointments and resignations were believed to have been previously approved by the pope.

Although their revelation could have been an attempt by the Vatican to show that the business of the church continues despite the pope's health, such an announcement of his appointments would likely have to be issued before his death.

CNN's Alessio Vinci, Chris Burns, Jim Bittermann, Miguel Marquez, Walter Rodgers, Christiane Amanpour and John Allen contributed to this report.

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