Published: 00:00, 08 May 2005
PEOPLE across Kent have been paying tribute to Pope John Paul II and remembering him in their prayers.
The Pope died peacefully on Saturday night in his Apostolic apartment above St Peter's Square in Rome. He was 84.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, described him as "one of the greatest Christian leaders".
His comments came as many visitors to Canterbury Cathedral lit candles and signed a dedicated Book of Condolence at the site of the Pope’s prayers with the then Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1982.
Dr Williams described the period leading up to the Pope’s death as an "extraordinary lived Sermon for Easter tide" and stressed: "He faced death with honesty and courage and showed Christians that a relationship with God is not broken by death but continues beyond it."
He said all Christian communities would join Catholic friends in a "bereavement for everybody".
An Australian visitor to Canterbury, Maralyn Coleman, said: "I am sure the death has left a void for many Catholics around the world. I think the Catholic church could probably develop itself in terms of modern issues like contraception in the Third World. Perhaps an African Pope might not be a bad idea."
Maidstone and the Weald MP Ann Widdecombe said: "It’s the end of an era. I am very sad. But also I am very relieved that he has died because he was obviously suffering cruelly."
She stressed: "One of the reasons I was attracted to Catholicism was that the Pope was sticking to his guns when other churches were not.
"Whoever succeeds this Pope should not try to copy him, but should try to forge their own path. It’s a bit like when Cardinal Basil Hume died. Everybody said that nobody would measure up to his stature, and the present Cardinal has had the wit not to try, but has made his own way."
The Pope's death has dominated church services throughout the county this weekend. At St Francis RC Church in Week Street, Maidstone, a congregation of around 900 attended mass at which the parish priest, Father John Clark, led the prayers.
Fr Clark said: "He was a marvellous man, he was unique. He had a tremendous personal strength and a great holiness, which came across when you met him. He was extremely caring and he had a tremendous love of young people."
Fr Clark met the pope when he took a group of 2,000 young people from all over the UK to Rome. "We had a private audience with him, which lasted the whole evening at his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo," he recalled.
"He spent the whole evening with these young people. He was brilliant, and he listened."
The priest also saw him when he was shepherded a group of 3,000 youngsters to Cardiff, where the Pope appeared at a youth event.
Fr Clark said: "It was amazing how they responded to him. Almost everybody has seen him, at one time or another. He was accessible to people and I think that made an enormous difference."
On the reaction among his congregation to the death of the pope, Fr Clark said: "People have been expecting it - he has been ill for so long.
"People are saddened. They’re very sad we have lost him, but in a sense it was a relief for him. He was so ill and he was carrying the burden.
"We’ve got confidence that whoever is chosen to succeed him the Holy Spirit has had a say.
"If you look back over the last popes we’ve had, each one has seemed to be the right person for the right time, and the right person to take the church through a particular phase."
As they left mass, the congregation spoke of their feelings of loss. Eileen Fox, of Grampian Way, Bearsted, said: "It’s terrible. We are all praying for his soul, and we know he is at peace, thank God."
The Labour councillor for Fant ward in Maidstone, Morel D’Souza, said: "It’s such a great loss to our community and to people globally. It’s a sad day, but a new beginning."
Mabel Finn, of Stevenson Close, Maidstone, said: "It’s very sad. He had a similar face to my father and I could see my father in him. I was very fond of him."
The Rev Chris Keen led the congregation at St Simon Stock RC Church in Bleakwood Road, Walderslade. He said: “We had a normal Sunday service but prayers were offered for the Holy Father who died. People were just pleased that the Pope hadn’t suffered and had died in peace.”
In the Rainham parishes of St Thomas of Canterbury and St Peter, Prince of Apostles, Father Douglas Bull said an increased number of people came to pay their respects and many had to stand at the back because there were not enough seats.
A steady stream of people had also been coming to pay homage at the shrines during the weekend, bringing flowers and lighting candles.
Fr Bull said: “We have a long week ahead of us as we prepare for his funeral, but people have been coming here to pray for the Pope.
"We set up a shrine in the church and we had a great number of people at our service. Many of them had to stand up at the back because there was not enough seats for everyone who came to pay their respects.”
Fr Bull also had fond memories of the Pope as he saw him during several pilgrimages, most recently three years ago. He said: “I met him on several occasions in public and he was a great man.”
Before the the Pope came to Kent in 1982 he had been under enormous pressure to call off the visit as the country was at odds with Catholic Argentina during the Falklands War. But after swift diplomacy, he arrived in the county and in his address called for greater Christian unity.
Well-wishers lined the streets of Canterbury to greet the first Pope to visit the United Kingdom.