WADOWICE, Poland – Poles wept and prayed early Saturday for Pope John Paul II (search) at the church where he worshipped as a boy, joining hours-long vigils nationwide as the health of Poland's favorite son worsened.
Hundreds of parishioners, many of them red-eyed and distraught, packed into St. Mary's church Friday evening in this southern Polish town of 20,000, kneeling in pews and on the stone floor as they recited prayers read from the candlelit altar. But as Friday turned into Saturday, hopes for the pope's recovery seemed to fade.
"He breathed this air, he walked these paths, he prayed at this altar, he baptized many among us," parish priest Rev. Krzysztof Glowka said during midnight Mass. "He moved the hearts of people of many different cultures."
Late-night vigils were held in many other churches throughout the country, from Warsaw to the famed Roman Catholic shrine of Czestochowa (search) to the southern city of Krakow, where the pope once served as bishop and cardinal.
As news spread from the Vatican (search) that the 84-year-old pope had suffered massive heart problems, Poles in his homeland prayed.
"The people of Wadowice (search) are crying as they bid farewell to the Holy Father," the Rev. Jakub Gil said during Mass Friday night.
The outpouring reflected a deep reverence for the pope, rooted in Poland's Roman Catholic identity and gratitude for his role in helping bring down communism in 1989-90 and freeing Poland from domination by the Soviet Union with his support of the Solidarity movement.
"He is very important to Poland. He contributed to Poland's freedom. He gave people hope, strength and faith in freedom. Every Pole is proud of him," said ship mechanic Janusz Kaniewski, 42, who returned from a ski vacation to pray for the pope.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist, attended a Mass for the ailing pontiff in Warsaw and canceled official meetings. State television said it was replacing comedy shows with broadcasts of Masses and prayers.
"He did so much for the world, for peace in the world, for understanding between people that ... he can serenely close this period of life on Earth, even though we want him to be with us for as long as possible," Kwasniewski said.
Worshippers streamed into the 15th-century St. Mary's basilica, set in a small park near the house where the pope was born Karol Wojtyla on May 18, 1920. A large picture of the pope — looking vibrant in a red cape with his arms opened — decorated the church entrance.
Despite warm spring temperatures and the light dappling the nave's pink and white walls, the mood inside was somber as toddlers to pensioners crowded inside, some praying at a small chapel with an image of the Virgin Mary.
Similar scenes were repeated across the nation of 38 million as Poles left schools and workplaces to pray.
A first-division soccer game in Poznan between Pogon Szczecin and Lech Poznan was abandoned before halftime after news of the pope's rapid decline reached the stadium and the crowd chanted, "Stop the match!"
In Krakow — the southern city where Wojtyla rose to bishop, then to cardinal before becoming pope in 1978 — his longtime friend Jozefa Hennelowa contemplated the fading hopes for the pontiff's survival.
"I feel as though someone very close was leaving us, someone from our family," she said. "He is suffering so much."
Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity movement drew inspiration from the pope, said he hoped the pope would pull through.
"I really hope that if the entire world prays hard enough then God will listen," Walesa told The Associated Press by telephone from Prague.
In Warsaw, 40-year-old Wojtek Wisniewski left All Saints' Church in tears.
"I never cried before. I don't go to church, I don't believe in priests or in God in the way he is presented," Wisniewski said. "But I believe in the pope. I love him. He is a saint. He understands people like me and speaks to us. There will never be another person like him."
Poland's tiny Jewish and Muslim communities organized special services, a recognition of the pope's efforts to bridge differences between the faiths. Most of Poland's Jewish community was exterminated during World War II.
"We Jews feel a special attachment to Pope John Paul II because of everything he has done for us," Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told The Associated Press before a Jewish service in the capital. "Through his teachings he created that space in the life of Poland today in which Polish Jews can try to live in Poland again."