Frail pope struggles through Holy Week services

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

VATICAN CITY -- A frail Pope John Paul II struggled through Holy Thursday ceremonies in St. Peter's Basilica, twice ceding his place at the ornate main altar to other clerics.

It was the second time in less than a week that John Paul has let someone take his place in a major Holy Week ceremony.

The pontiff, who will be 82 years old in May and suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's, had a tough schedule Thursday, a Mass in the morning and another one in late afternoon.

Twice he was wheeled down the long main aisle of St. Peter's, standing on his special cart. And twice, someone else took his place at the altar.

John Paul read his homily and recited or chanted several prayers at each service seated in a white throne with golden arms and wearing heavy gold-trimmed vestments.

During the afternoon ceremony, John Paul let Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Roger Etchegaray perform the ritual washing and kissing of the feet of priests, a ritual symbolizing humility, the first time he has not done so since becoming pope in 1978.

Just a year ago, the pope was able to move down a line of a dozen seated, white-robed priests, pouring water on each man's right foot from a golden pitcher, wiping them dry and bringing the feet to his lips.

The New Testament says Jesus washed the feet of his 12 disciples when they ate one last meal together on the day before he was crucified.

During the morning Mass, at which priests renew their vows, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos took the pontiff's place at the main altar.

Just four days earlier, in another break with his traditions, John Paul ceded his place at the altar for Palm Sunday Mass. The ceremony opens Holy Week, the most important stretch on the Church calendar.

Holy Week is a grueling time for John Paul, with a packed schedule of public appearances. He is scheduled to perform a Good Friday service at the Colosseum, a vigil service on Saturday night and an Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square on Sunday.

The Good Friday procession, which symbolizes Jesus' path to his crucifixion, has been modified in deference to John Paul's age and health. He used to carry a wooden cross for the entire half-mile procession, but stopped last year.

Symptoms of Parkinson's were evident Thursday. The pope's hands trembled badly as he clasped them, and his speech was often slurred. He also seemed unsure of his balance, gripping the rail of his cart when raising his hand in blessing.

The Vatican hasn't mentioned the pope's health during Holy Week, but said Feb. 23 that he had a joint disease, arthrosis, in one of his knees. He has since canceled a number of public appearances.

Thursday's ceremonies, which centered on priests and their vows, were especially poignant because of the sex abuse scandals rocking the church in the United States and elsewhere.

John Paul broke his silence on the scandals last week, saying they had cast a ''dark shadow of suspicion'' on other, honorable priests.

On Thursday morning, he invited prayers for ''our brothers who didn't meet their commitments that came with priestly ordination or who are going through a period of difficulty and crisis.'' While thanking God for the gift of the priesthood, John Paul said, ''we cannot help but confess our infidelities.''

Thursday morning Mass had just ended when the latest high-level resignation came -- that of the archbishop of Poznan in John Paul's native Poland over allegations he had made sexual advances on young clerics.

Without comment, the Vatican said the pope had accepted the resignation of Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, his appointee and longtime acquaintance, and named a successor.

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