The former pope, Benedict XVI, spent Thursday in a lucid, stable but serious condition, as thousands gathered in Vatican City to pray for him a day after it was revealed that the 95-year-old's health had gravely deteriorated.
A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Pope Francis had asked for continued prayers “to accompany him in these difficult hours”.
Concerns for Benedict's health were triggered a day earlier when, after visiting his predecessor's home in the Vatican Gardens, Pope Francis revealed that he was “very ill”.
“The Pope Emeritus managed to rest well during the night, he is absolutely lucid and aware, and today, even though his condition remains grave, the situation is, at the moment, stable,” Mr Bruni said.
In 2013, Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to retire, choosing to live out his retirement in seclusion in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens. Few had expected his retirement — now almost in its 10th year — to last longer than his eight-year tenure as pope.
“Pope Francis renews the invitation to pray for him and accompany him in these difficult hours,” Mr Bruni said.
Responding to that call, the diocese of Rome scheduled a special Mass in honour of Benedict on Friday at St John Lateran, Benedict’s former basilica in his capacity as the bishop of Rome.
Word of Benedict's declining health immediately posed questions about what would happen when he dies, given the unprecedented reality of having a serving pope presumably presiding over the funeral of a former pope.
Most Vatican experts expect his funeral would resemble that for any retired bishop of Rome, albeit with the caveat that there would be official delegations to honour a former head of state, as well as pilgrims from Germany — Benedict's homeland — and beyond.
While St Peter’s Square was mostly filled with visitors from abroad on Thursday — as it is the peak Christmas tourist season — some Italians came out to pay their respects or offer a prayer.
“Obviously it is a bad situation, we are all close to Pope Ratzinger [Benedict], we are sad about the situation, so we came here to make our small contribution,” said one pilgrim, Giorgio Gibin.
Another visitor to the square, Anna Malcka, noted Benedict’s advanced age and wished him well.
“I think by now he has lived about long enough, poor thing, and since he is sick, he is not well, if God wishes, he will take him away,” she said.
Otherwise, while the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano headlined its Thursday editions with news of Benedict’s health, life continued as normal in the tiny city-state that Benedict and Pope Francis call home.
The Pope had a routine day of audiences on Thursday, meeting his ambassador to Madagascar, the commander of the Swiss Guards and a fellow Jesuit.
In the square, the line of tourists waiting to get into St Peter’s Basilica wrapped almost entirely around the piazza, with couples and families stopping to pose for selfies in front of the life-size nativity scene and Christmas tree set up in the square.
Small groups of nuns hurried across the cobblestones and tour guides holding flags herded their charges, while nearby souvenir sellers did brisk business hawking Vatican magnets, rosaries and bobblehead Pope Francis statues.
“We hadn’t heard the news,” said Liam Marchesano, a 22-year-old economics student from Mantova who was waiting to see the basilica with his girlfriend. “Maybe that’s why there’s such a long line.”