VATICAN CITY – Tens of thousands of people filled a floodlit St. Peter's Square keeping a solemn vigil for a weakening Pope John Paul II (search), many staying on as the hours crept toward Saturday's dawn. Some held candles and others had teary eyes — a scene repeated at churches around the world.
Mothers hushed cranky children, spouses embraced and some families sat in circles on the cold stone, their heads bowed in reflection. Police estimated 70,000 people were on the square at midnight, but the crowd dwindled as the night wore on.
Some who remained knelt on the cobblestones to pray, while others wrapped themselves in blankets to ward off the nighttime chill.
"You see video of him when he became pope, he was so alive, so excited to be here. Now to see him break down is just really sad," said Tripp McLaughlin, a 20-year-old American. "It would be a blessing if he passed on."
Most in the crowd were silent, standing almost as still as the stone statues atop Bernini's colonnade that embraces the square. The rustling of water from the two fountains in the square at times could be heard across the vast space.
"He's always a father to me," Marzena Lesniak said, a big tear on her eyelid. A Pole who moved to Rome 15 years ago, she stood with her husband and young.
Some people gazed through binoculars or camera lenses at John Paul's apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace (search). The windows of his studieo and his secretary's room were illuminated in an otherwise darkened building.
"We are near to him in prayer so that he can go to heaven, welcomed by the Lord and the other saints," said Rossella Longo, a young woman distributing rosaries to the crowd.
Across town, thousands jammed the basilica of St. John Lateran for an evening Mass for John Paul that was celebrated by his vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, and attended by Italy's president, premier and other dignitaries.
"John Paul is confronting the most difficult test of his long and extraordinary life, and he confronts it and lives it with the same intimate serenity and loyal abandon to the hands of God that he has always lived, worked, suffered and enjoyed," Ruini said in his homily.
"I'm hoping for a miracle," said 53-year-old Luciana Biella, who attended the service. "But a miracle at this point would be very difficult," she added.
Police said they expected hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in the city in the next few days.
"We are closing the area around the Vatican (search) and police will be present at airports and train stations to help pilgrims move around in the city," Rome Prefect Achille Serra said.