Pope John Paul II’s absence was felt by worried followers as poor health forced him to miss major Holy Week events, and the pontiff’s suffering gave special significance to Good Friday’s ceremonies.
The Pope, from his apartment, watched Holy Thursday services in St. Peter’s Basilica on television as a cardinal read a message to the faithful on his behalf in an early evening service recalling the Last Supper of Christ.
“With mind and heart I am close to you,” the pontiff said in the Holy Thursday message.
Today, Good Friday, when the Roman Catholic Church marks Jesus’ Crucifixion and death, John Paul was expected to use a video connection to participate in the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum.
The Vatican also said the Pope would not hear confessions in St. Peter’s Basilica today – a change from previous years.
Holy Week services had taken on a special significance because of the pontiff’s suffering, a top Vatican official, US Archbishop John Foley said.
“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,” Foley said on Vatican Radio.
“So there’s added significance in which the Holy Father is associated with Jesus in the carrying of the cross,” said Foley, who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
On Thursday, the faithful in the basilica broke into applause when the Pope’s message being read aloud concluded this way: “Spiritually present, I pray with you, while with affection I bless all of you.”
Recent medical crises that led to a breathing tube being surgically inserted into his throat a month ago have taken their toll on the 84-year-old pope, already worn down by years of battling Parkinson’s disease.
Susanna Cardenas, an officer from the Ecuadorean Embassy to the Holy See who attended the evening service, said “you could feel his presence, but you could sense he wasn’t there”.
Luigi Santo, a seminarian, noted that “when the Pope is present there is a whole other spirituality”.
John Paul, who also suffers from knee and hip ailments, stopped carrying the cross at the ancient site several years ago. However, he had continued to preside over the torch-lit evening service, reading prayers to the crowd.
“It’s certainly a great sacrifice for him not to be with his people as in all these years in a physical and direct way, but in a certain sense, he will be (present) in an even more powerful way,” Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola said of the Pope’s absence for Good Friday.
“This is the great mystery of the authority of the church,” said Scola.
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 26-year papacy to preside at these important Holy Week events was a reminder to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics of the limits posed by his physical problems.
Holy Thursday had two ceremonies, a morning service and the evening Mass. The Pope used to wash the feet of 12 priests as a symbol of humility and in a re-enactment of Christ’s washing of his apostles the day before he was crucified. But John Paul has not performed the ritual since 2001.
Holy Week culminates on Easter Sunday, when the Pope is expected to bless the crowds.