MEXICO CITY – Hundreds of thousands of people in heavily Roman Catholic Latin America (search) gathered at neighborhood parishes and in city squares Saturday to lament the death of Pope John Paul II (search) and reflect on the life of a pontiff with whom they shared a special bond.
Anguished mourners raised their hands to heaven or bowed their heads in grief as the news spread that the man who led the church for more than a quarter of a century was gone.
Cathedral bells rang out from Mexico to Argentina (search), calling saddened worshippers to special Masses in memory of the Spanish-speaking pope. Political leaders who had shaken the pontiff's hand despite ideological differences issued public condolences and ordered flags lowered to half-staff.
In Mexico City, which John Paul chose for the first foreign trip of his papacy in 1979, about 200 people gathered at the base of a bronze statue of the pope at the Basilica of Guadalupe, crying, clapping, clutching rosaries and chanting: "John Paul II, the whole world loves you!"
Mourners draped a large black ribbon above the entrance of the basilica, a centuries-old sanctuary where the pope canonized the church's first Indian saint three years ago.
Street vendors sold bandannas with a printed picture of the smiling pope and hand-scrawled messages saying, "John Paul II, Mexico loves you," while church officials mounted a display of clothes and personal articles left behind by the pope during his five visits here. Basilica director Diego Monroy was to lead an all-night, candlelight vigil for the pope.
President Vicente Fox offered condolences in a nationally televised message, while the Mexican soccer federation announced that it would postpone two soccer games previously scheduled for Sunday, the day a Mass was to be held for the pope in St. Peter's Square in Rome.
Nearly 90 percent of Mexico's 100 million people are at least nominally Catholic, and about 20 million were believed to have turned out to see him during his first Latin American trip in 1979. He returned four more times, delighting the crowds who clogged the streets and packed sports stadiums to see him don a sombrero and accompany mariachis on guitar.
The pope referred to this country as "Mexico ever faithful," and during a visit in 1999, told the cheering masses in their native Spanish, "Today I can feel Mexican!"
John Paul's visits throughout Latin America — which is home to half the world's 1 billion Catholics — were fondly remembered Saturday.
Patricia Lopez, 41, led a group at Mexico City's basilica in a sad recitation of the Lord's Prayer. She said the day she saw the pope's motorcade pass by "was the best of my life."
"But so many years later, he's on his way to finally rest," she said, sobbing uncontrollably as worshippers rocked back and forth in grief.
"He's gone and he has left us, but it is better now because he was suffering so much," said Maria Gonzalez, a 75-year-old jewelry maker who wept at the cathedral in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. "Now he is resting in the arms of the Lord."
More than 100 parishioners at the cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, began to cry when they heard the news of the pope's death. The government declared three days of national mourning and ordered all state flags lowered to half-staff.
In Guatemala City, the faithful gathered in Pope John Paul II Square, recalling the 2002 visit during which he beatified Hermano Pedro, a Spanish friar who helped the Central American country's poor.
While average Catholics expressed little but love for John Paul, his politics were not universally accepted in Latin America, a region that had begun to churn with conflicts between leftist rebels and right-wing military governments at the time John Paul became pope 26 years ago.
The wars fractured the church's unity in Latin America, with numerous priests siding with the Marxist guerrillas in the name of the poor and under-represented — a position the pope openly frowned upon. Some were angry at the pontiff for not condemning U.S. support for the region's repressive dictators.
But even those who stood for opposing political beliefs put aside their differences Saturday to offer praise and sympathy for the pope.
"One has to pay tribute to the pilgrim pope who came two times to Venezuela," said leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who opponents charge is trying to build a repressive socialist dictatorship.
"I had the opportunity to meet him, to visit with him two times," Chavez said. "I will never forget my dialogues with the pope. ... He fulfilled his task, he completed his journey and may he rest in peace."
In Havana, Fidel Castro's communist government received "with profound pain" the news of John Paul's death.
"We always considered John Paul II a friend, someone was concerned for the poor, who fought neoliberalism and for peace," said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.