The world responded with an outpouring of grief and admiration after the announcement that Pope John Paul II pope had died Saturday.

Bells tolled worldwide. In Paris, the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral sounded 84 times – once for each year of the pontiff’s life.

Although his death had been widely expected since a recent series of medical problems, the passing of the pontiff after 26 years at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church overwhelmed many of the faithful.

At St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, worshippers dropped to their knees and wept when news of the death was announced as hundreds of candles flickered.

At the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Olga Sanchez, 42, knelt on a pew and wept softly into a handkerchief. Sanchez said she was cured of chronic stomach ailments after attending John Paul’s Mass during his 1984 visit to her country.

“I’m completely sure he was a saint,” Sanchez said.

Zora Valcic, a 54-year-old saleswoman from the northwest city of Pula, Croatia, couldn’t hold back her tears. A blessing she received from him at the Vatican “made my life so much fuller and nicer. I’ll be eternally grateful for that.”

World leaders echoed the admiration.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe declared a period of national mourning and ordered flags across the country to fly at half staff. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared seven days of national morning.

French President Jacques Chirac said history “will retain the imprint and the memory of this exceptional sovereign pontiff,” while British Prime Minister Tony Blair said John Paul “never wavered, never flinched, in the struggle for what he thought was good and right.”

More than just a spiritual guide, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the pope “was a tireless advocate of peace, a true pioneer in interfaith dialogue and a strong force for critical self-evaluation by the Church itself.”

Even in communist Cuba, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque hastily called a news conference to express “profound sorrow” and fondly recall the pope’s visit to the island seven years ago.

Praise for John Paul II transcended religious boundaries.

“He promoted inter-faith understanding and dialogue, with a willingness to address the past, and a profound determination to build a future of understanding and brotherhood between all faiths,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said the pope will be remembered “as a distinguished religious figure, who devoted his life to defending the values of peace, freedom and equality.” Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also expressed their sorrow.

Even Spain’s ruling Socialist party, which clashed with the pontiff over gay marriage, abortion and divorce, issued a statement calling his death a loss for Catholics and the international community, saying he “was one of the most important historical figures of the 20th century.”

European Union Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso sent a special message of solidarity to Poland.

“His disappearance leaves a void in the hearts of all those, believers and nonbelievers, who have been inspired by his example of courage and humanity,” Barroso wrote.

Kneeling in a pew facing a large picture of Pope John Paul II surrounded by tall white candles and flowers in the San Juan Cathedral in Puerto Rico, 23-year-old bakery worker Fabiola Quezada clasped her hand and moved her lips in silent, fervent prayer.

“He’s the only pope I’ve known, he’s been my father through difficult times, the next one may be a great man, but it won’t be the same for me,” she said.

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