Pope John Paul II’s own suffering kept him away from his flock on Good Friday, but he appeared via video at the Way of the Cross commemoration of Christ’s suffering at Rome’s torchlit Colosseum.
The faithful who had gathered at the Colosseum cheered and waved torches as the Pope appeared on large screens at the start of the evening procession – the first time he has been physically absent in his 26-year pontificate. He did not speak.
John Paul was seen sitting alone in his private chapel at the Vatican, wearing white robes and a red stole, watching the procession on a television screen under the chapel altar.
The pontiff also sent a message to the crowd which was read at the start by his vicar for Rome, Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini. In it, John Paul said he was spiritually among those at the Colosseum recalling Christ’s last hours.
“I also offer my suffering, so that God’s design is completed and his word walks among the people,” the message said.
“I am near all those who in these moments are tested by suffering. I pray for each of them,” he said.
Vatican TV installed giant television screens at the Colosseum and on the plateau overlooking the Colosseum where the Pope used to sit there was a torchlit cross.
“We will miss him, but we know he’s here, even if not physically,” said Cecilia Paolombo, a 20-year-old Italian Girl Scout who was giving out torches to the faithful.
Images of the Pope from his Vatican chapel were broadcast several more times during the ceremony.
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 hospitalisations in a month and added poignancy to this week’s Holy Week ceremonies – the most solemn events on the church calendar.
John Paul has been absent for the major events of Holy Week, although he appeared silently at his studio window twice this week and 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, United States Archbishop John Foley, told Vatican Radio today.
The Pope has not spoken in public since shortly before he was released from the hospital March 13. His only commitment during Holy Week is to deliver a blessing on Easter Sunday.
John Paul watched Holy Thursday services recalling the Last Supper of Christ on television from his Vatican apartment, and he relinquished another cherished tradition this morning when he didn’t hear the confessions of faithful in St Peter’s Basilica.
US Cardinal James Stafford stood in for John Paul for a Friday afternoon meditation service in the basilica. The preacher for the papal household, the Rev Raniero Cantalamessa, delivered the homily and ended with a prayer that the Pope recover quickly.
“Come back soon, Holy Father,” he said. “Easter isn’t Easter without you.”
The Pope used to carry a lightweight wooden cross during the Colosseum procession, which symbolically traces Christ’s path to the Crucifixion. He stopped in 2001 because of his difficulty in walking, but he would observe the procession from a chair and offer prayers to the crowds.
Ruini, the Pope’s vicar for Rome, took the Pope’s place carrying the cross at the beginning and end of the procession, while a nun, two Franciscan friars and lay people, including Albanian immigrants and a youth from Sudan, were carrying it at other stages.
John Paul’s close aide, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, composed this year’s meditations to be read aloud during each of the 14 stages of the procession.
In them, Ratzinger denounces immorality, including “filth” in the Church, ”even among those ... in the priesthood,” a possible reference to the widespread sexual scandals among clergy.