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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tears and Prayers in the City He Wanted to Visit

MTA young Catholic kneeling in prayer next to a bust of Pope John Paul II during Mass on Sunday at Moscow's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
As the world mourned the death of Pope John Paul II, hundreds of people came to the spiritual home of Catholicism in Moscow -- a place he could never visit -- to pay their respects.

Hundreds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike packed into the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Malaya Gruzinskaya for a special Mass on Sunday morning.

Russian religious leaders, politicians and cultural figures also paid tribute to the Roman Catholic leader whose persistent desire to visit Russia was blocked by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Flowers and candles were lit in the ornate Gothic cathedral as Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the leader of Russia's 600,000 Catholics, celebrated a Mass for the pope's soul.

He told the congregation that John Paul had been "the voice of East Europeans under communism."

"His call to 'open the door to Christ' was a special address to the countries of Eastern Europe who lived behind the Iron Curtain," he said. "At that time, he spoke to us and for us. And the Iron Curtain fell."

"I met with him many times, but the last time I saw him was March 8," Kondrusiewicz said on the steps of the cathedral, before going in to celebrate afternoon Mass in Polish and Russian.

Kondrusiewicz, his voice cracking, was on the verge of tears outside the cathedral and later during the Mass as he spoke of the pope's death. Many of the congregation also shed tears as he spoke.

The cathedral on Malaya Gruzinskaya has had a special link to the pope through the Polish Catholic members of its congregation. Flowers and candles were lit close by a plaque thanking the pope for his help in restoring the cathedral after it was returned to the Catholic Church by the Soviet government.

The cathedral was built from 1906 to 1911 by the city's Polish Catholic community but was closed 25 years later by the Soviet government. Much of its interior was destroyed.

"I have always thought well of him," said Yelena, a pensioner and Russian Orthodox believer who did not give her second name. She had traveled from the outskirts of the city to place six carnations, an even number by funereal tradition, next to his photograph in the cathedral. "He was so kind, let's hope God sends another like him," she said.

"I will light a candle for him," said Fratishek, a regular churchgoer, who also did not want to give his full name. "Many international leaders could learn a lot from how he led the Church."

Alexy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church who had prevented John Paul from visiting Russia, was one of many who paid their tributes late Saturday.

"Together with you we grieve over the loss that has befallen the Roman Catholic Church," Alexy II said in a letter to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, Interfax reported. "I will pray for the repose of the soul of Pope John Paul II in heaven. May his memory live forever."

Tensions between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have been strained for decades, with the Orthodox Church accusing Catholics of proselytizing in Russia. The disagreement had consistently proved a stumbling block to a papal visit.

Calling John Paul an "outstanding figure of our times," President Vladimir Putin, who met the pope most recently in the Vatican in 2003, said he had "the warmest memories of my meetings with the pontiff. ... He was a wise and understanding man who was open for dialogue."

Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, said he felt deep sorrow at John Paul's death.

"Taking into account the great contribution made by the pope to the development of dialogue between the different religions, I know his death will be a great loss for all believers all over the world," Interfax quoted Lazar as saying.

Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, expressed his condolences on behalf of the country's Muslims, RIA-Novosti reported. "John Paul II was the only Catholic leader who apologized for the Crusades," he said.

Statistics on John Paul II's Papacy

• Visited 129 countries in 104 foreign visits, making him most-traveled pope. Covered 1.15 million kilometers, which is about 30 times around the globe or three times to the Moon.

• Issued 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions and 44 apostolic letters and delivered 2,416 planned speeches during his foreign trips.

• Beatified 1,338 people in 147 ceremonies and canonized 482 people in 51 ceremonies, more than all his predecessors over the past 500 years combined.

• Convened nine consistories and installed 232 cardinals; ordained 321 bishops; baptized 687 children and 814 adults.

• Held 1,161 general audiences, attended by over 17.6 million people.

• Visited 317 of Rome's 333 parishes in his capacity as bishop of Rome.

• Held 38 official visits with heads of state and more than 982 audiences and meetings with political figures, of which 737 were audiences or other meetings with heads of state and 245 were meetings or audiences with prime ministers.

• Was the third-longest-serving pontiff, at 26 years, five months, 17 days. Popes who served longer were St. Peter, the first pope, who served from A.D. 30 to 64 or 67, for 34 or 37 years; and Pope Pius IX, who served 31 years, seven months, 22 days, until Feb. 7, 1878.

• Published five books as pope: "Beyond the Threshold of Hope,'' (1994); the autobiography "Gift and Mystery'' (1996); and a book of poetry "Roman Triptych,'' (2003), "Get Up, Let Us Go,'' (2004), "Memory and Identity,'' (2005).

-- The Associated Press