| A Roman Catholic girl prays for Pope John Paul II before a mass at St. Mary Cathedral in Tokyo, 03 April 2005 after the death of the Pope. Hundreds of believers prayed for the late Pope while Japanese leaders mourned his death, hailing his efforts for peace and dialogue with other religions. AFP PHOTO
Vatican City, April 2 (Reuters): Pope John Paul II died on Saturday, the Vatican announced.
The 84-year-old Pontiff, who had headed the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years, died at 9.37 p.m (1937 GMT), a statement said.
"The Holy Father died this evening at 21.37 in his private apartment," the statement said.
The news was immediately announced to huge crowds gathered in St Peter's Square.
John Paul will be remembered for his role in the collapse of communism in Europe and his unyielding defence of traditional Vatican doctrines as leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.
Huge crowds had staged a tearful vigil in St. Peter's Square, praying for a man already being dubbed by some Catholics as"John Paul the Great".
The Pope's health had deteriorated steadily over the past decade and earlier this year took a sharp turn for the worse.
The Pontiff, once a lithe athlete and powerful speaker, was already racked by arthritis and Parkinson's Disease, his voice often reduced to a raspy whisper.
He was rushed to hospital twice in February and had to have a tracheotomy to ease serious breathing problems. But he never regained his strength from the operation and failed dramatically on two occasions to address crowds at St. Peter's Square.
On Wednesday doctors inserted a feeding tube into his stomach to try boost his energy levels. A day later he developed a urinary infection and high fever that soon precipitated heart failure, kidney problems and ultimately death.
According to pre-written Church rules, the Pontiff's mourning rites will last 9 days and his body is likely to be laid to rest in the crypt underneath St Peter's Basilica.
The conclave to elect a new Pope will start in 15 to 20 days, with almost 120 cardinals from around the world gathering in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel to choose a successor.
There is no favourite candidate to take over. Karol Wojtyla was himself regarded as an outsider when he was elevated to the papacy on Oct. 16, 1978.
Few would have predicted then that the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years would throw off the stiff trappings of the papacy, travel the globe and leave an indelible mark on history.
In over a quarter century on the world stage, he was both a champion of the downtrodden and an often contested defender of orthodoxy within his own church.
Historians say one of the Pope's most lasting legacies will be his role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.
"Behold the night is over, day has dawned anew," the Pope said during a triumphant visit to Czechoslovakia in 1990.
A decade after witnessing the fall of communism, he fulfilled another of his dreams. He visited the Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall, asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.
But while many loved the man, his message was less popular and he was a source of deep division in his own church.
Critics constantly attacked his traditionalist stance on family issues, such as his condemnation of contraception and homosexuality, and hope the next Pope will be more liberal.
However, he has appointed more than 95 percent of the cardinals who will elect his successor, thus stacking the odds that his controversial teachings will not be tampered with.
Here is a short chronology of major events in the life and pontificate of Pope John Paul
May 18, 1920 - Karol Jozef Wojtyla born in Wadowice, Poland, second son of retired army sergeant and a mother of Lithuanian origin.
1942 - Having lost all immediate family, commences secret studies for priesthood during Nazi occupation.
Nov 1, 1946 - Ordained in Krakow, completes studies at pontifical universities in Rome and returns to Poland.
Sept 28, 1958 - Consecrated assistant Bishop of Krakow.
Jan 13, 1964 - Named Archbishop of Krakow.
June 26, 1967 - Created a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
Oct 16, 1978 - Elected the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. Pontificate begins officially six days later.
June 2-10, 1979 - Returns to his communist-ruled homeland, a trip seen as a factor in the rise of the Solidarity movement.
May 13, 1981 - Shot by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca in St Peter's Square. Surgery saves his life.
May 12, 1982 - Rebel Spanish priest Juan Fernandez Krohn tries to stab Pope in Fatima, Portugal. He is not hurt.
June 8-14, 1987 - In his third visit to his homeland, Pope strongly defends the banned Solidarity trade union.
June 25, 1987 - Receives Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, angering Jews who accuse Waldheim of Nazi war crimes.
Dec 1, 1989 - President Mikhail Gorbachev invites Pope to Soviet Union, though he never takes up offer.
April 21, 1990 - Flies to Czechoslovakia to hail collapse of communism with President Vaclav Havel.
Oct 18, 1990 - At synod, Pope rules out married priesthood.
July 15, 1992 - Intestinal tumour size of orange removed.
Oct 31, 1992 - After 359 years, Pope rehabilitates Galileo, condemned by the Church for saying earth turns around the sun.
Nov 11, 1992 - Anglican Church's decision to allow women priests brings relations with the Vatican to a new low.
Dec 7, 1992 - Issues the Roman Catholic Church's new universal Catechism -- the first in nearly five centuries.
Dec 28, 1993 - Vatican and Israel forge full diplomatic ties after 2,000 years of Christian-Jewish hostility.
April 28, 1994 - Slips in bath and breaks right thigh.
Oct 17, 1994 - Becomes best-selling author with publication of the book"Crossing the Threshold of Faith".
May 17, 1995 - On the eve of 75th birthday, rules out suggestions he should retire as other bishops do at that age. Says he will remain in the job for as long as God wants.
Dec 25, 1995 - Influenza forces Pope to miss Christmas Mass for first time in his pontificate.
Sept 9, 1997 - Frailty keeps Pope from attending funeral of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Oct 31, 1997 - In a major speech, says Christians failed during the Holocaust.
Jan 1, 2000 - Opens Holy Door of St Peter's Basilica to usher in Christianity's third millennium.
March 13, 2000 - Asks pardon for the Church's sins, including against Jews, heretics, women and minorities.
March 20-26, 2000 - Visits Holy Land, calls for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
May 8, 2001 - Ending visit to Syria, makes history by becoming the first Pope in history to enter a mosque.
Nov 22, 2001 - Apologises to victims of sexual abuse by priests.
April 2002 - Summons U.S. cardinals after scandal there over Church's handling of sexual abuse of children by priests.
August 2002 - Makes last poignant visit to Polish homeland, visiting Krakow, and talking about death.
Oct 2002 - Marks 24th jubilee by changing the way rosary prayers are said for the first time in nine centuries.
Jan-March 2003 - Pope at forefront of campaign to avert U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Oct 19, 2003 - Beatifies Mother Teresa before a crowd of 300,000, calling her an"icon" of charity.
Dec 18, 2004 - Condemns same-sex marriage as an attack on fabric of society.
Feb 1, 2005 - Taken to hospital in Rome with acute breathing problems and stays for 10 days.
Feb 24, 2005 - Rushed to hospital for tracheotomy, opening windpipe to cure acute breathing difficulties.
March 13, 2005 - Speaks to faithful for the first time since throat surgery and returns to Vatican.
March 20, 2005 - For the first time in the papacy, Holy Week services begin without the Pontiff.
March 24, 2005 - Cardinal says Pope"serenely abandoning" himself to God's will".
March 27, 2005 - Appears at Vatican window on Easter Sunday. Tries to speak but fails to address the faithful.
March 30, 2005 - Nasal feeding tube inserted.
March 31, 2005 - Suffers heart attack and develops very high fever from urinary infection. Refuses to return to hospital.
April 2, 2005 - Dies at 1937 GMT.