For the first time in his 26-year pontificate, John Paul was missing the Way of the Cross procession last night, which re-enacts Christ’s crucifixion amid the haunting ruins of Rome’s torch-lit Colosseum.
The 84-year-old Pontiff’s physical suffering has been evident for years as he battled Parkinson’s disease and crippling hip and knee ailments. But it has worsened with the effects of breathing problems that prompted two hospital admissions in a month.
John Paul has been absent for the major events of Holy Week, although he has appeared silently at his studio window twice this week and has delivered messages telling the faithful that he is spiritually near them as he recovers.
“It’s very obvious that the Pope is carrying a very heavy cross indeed, and he is giving a marvellous example of patience in the face of suffering, and of long suffering which in itself is a virtue,” a top Vatican official, US Archbishop John Foley, said yesterday.
The Pope hasn’t spoken in public since shortly before he was released from the hospital on March 13, and his only commitment during Holy Week is to deliver a blessing on Sunday.
John Paul watched Holy Thursday services recalling the Last Supper on television from his apartment, and he relinquished another cherished tradition yesterday when he didn’t hear the confessions of faithful in St Peter’s Basilica.
The Pope used to carry a lightweight wooden cross during the Colosseum procession, which symbolically traces Christ’s path to the Crucifixion.
However, he stopped doing this in 2001 because of his difficulty in walking, but he would still observe the procession from a chair and offer prayers to the crowds.
Although the Vatican has taken pains to describe the ailing Pontiff as solidly at the helm of the church, his failure for the first time in his papacy to preside at Holy Week events was a reminder to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics of the limits imposed by his physical problems.
“What’s important in my mind is to see that the Church functions,” Paris Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois said yesterday.
“Nothing has stopped” even if the Pope takes a less visible role, the archbishop added.