VATICAN CITY, FEB. 14, 2005 ( The news of Sister Lucia's death, the last living witness of the Virgin Mary's apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, is "very sad" for John Paul II, says a Vatican prefect.

"We know very well the profound friendship that existed" between the nun and the Pope, said Portuguese Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, in a report by the Catholic agency Ecclesia. The Holy Father is currently on a spiritual retreat at the Vatican.

The cardinal was commenting on the nun's death, which occurred Sunday in the convent of Coimbra. Sister Maria Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart was 97.

"They met several times, and for John Paul II they were always moments of great spirituality," the cardinal said. "The Pope has always said that the Virgin Mary saved him from the attack in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981. And Fatima and the little shepherds have a very special place in his heart."

The Holy Father has credited the intervention of the Virgin of Fatima with saving his life in the 1981 attack by Mehmet Ali Agca.

In thanksgiving, the Pope traveled to Fatima on May 13, 1982. There he placed the bullet that wounded him in the crown of the image of the Virgin of Fatima.

Over the past few weeks, Sister Lucia's health condition had worsened. When receiving this news, John Paul II sent her a message last Saturday.

Bishop Albino Cleto of Coimbra confirmed that Sister Lucia heard the reading of the papal message on Sunday and, being "very affected" by it, asked if she could personally read the text of the fax.

"It was, perhaps, the last reaction she had in relation to the life around her," added the bishop in statements to Ecclesia.

In his message, the Holy Father said that, on hearing of her illness, he prayed to God that the religious would be able to live "the moment of pain and suffering" with a "paschal spirit," and he ended his message imparting his blessing to her.

Enclosed in her convent cell, Sister Lucia died surrounded by her sisters in religion, and by the bishop of Coimbra, her doctors, and the nurse attending her.

Her death was due to her advanced age; she would have been 98 on March 22.

John Paul II met with Sister Lucia on three visits to the Fatima shrine: in 1982, in 1991, and on May 13, 2000, the day he beatified the other Fatima visionaries, Francisco and Jacinta.