Ailing pope's role in Easter celebrations thrown into question

Even if Pope John Paul II is released from hospital in time for Easter at the end of the month, the frail pontiff is unlikely to fully participate in services marking Christianity's most solemn holiday.

But the Vatican insists that the 84-year-old pope, adapting his papacy to the limitations imposed by age and infirmity, doesn't have to utter a word to inspire the faithful. Sick or not, top officials say, John Paul remains the head of the Roman Catholic Church and his mere presence sends that message.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Friday that the pope was expected to make another window appearance at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital this Sunday, similar to his surprise showing a week ago. A final decision would be made on Saturday, Navarro-Valls said.

"The pope will give the blessing with his hands," not with his voice, still fragile after Feb. 24 surgery to insert a breathing tube into his throat, the spokesman said.

The pontiff spent a tranquil night at the hospital, the ANSA news agency reported early Saturday without citing sources. The Holy See said this week it was possible the pope could be released in time for Easter, which falls on March 27. Navarro-Valls said the Vatican was going ahead with its regular Easter schedule and that if the pope was released beforehand, his level of participation would still have to be worked out.

But with the pope now limited to waving and making the sign of the cross from a window of his 10th-floor hospital suite, and the Vatican refusing to set a date for his discharge, his role in the flurry of Holy Week services remained in question.

His presence at the Vatican during Holy Week, which begins on March 20 with Palm Sunday, would be important for the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.

Palm Sunday involves the traditional blessing of palms recalling the biblical account of Christ riding a donkey into Jerusalem, cheered by people waving palm fronds. There is also a procession and a Mass at St. Peter's Square.

On March 24, the Vatican will mark Holy Thursday with a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, followed by Good Friday with an evening outdoor Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum. A three-hour evening Easter Vigil service at St. Peter's precedes Easter Sunday, where the pope traditionally presides over a Mass in the square followed by a blessing and his "Urbi et Orbi" message to Romans and the rest of the world.

The grueling schedule had led to some speculation that the Vatican would seek to keep John Paul in the hospital until after Easter to give him more time to recover without having to cancel anything. But the Easter season is dear to the pope particularly the Way of the Cross procession and the "Urbi et Orbi" speech and a new image of the papacy has been emerging since his latest health crisis, emphasizing the power of his presence over the spoken word.

Several top officials have noted that even if he is unable to read a homily, recite a verse or deliver a blessing, he can still preside over a Mass or participate in what the church calls a concelebration. Enrico Gasbarra, president of the province of Rome, visited the hospital Friday and said he left impressed by the "tireless work that the Holy Father has never stopped doing even here."

"Every day we have one more smile, because every day the Holy Father's convalescence gets better and that puts us at peace," he said.

The pope's overall health and recovery are complicated by Parkinson's disease, which causes gradual loss of muscle control. He also suffers from crippling hip and knee ailments.

John Paul was taken by ambulance to Gemelli with breathing spasms on Feb. 1 and was released on Feb. 10, only to be rushed back again on Feb. 24 for the throat operation. He has begun extensive speech and respiratory therapy.

Among others who stopped by the hospital Friday to show their support were the Vatican ambassadors from Israel and Ukraine, reflecting the pope's efforts to bridge centuries of misunderstanding between Catholics, Jews and Orthodox Christians. Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, also sent a goodwill message.

Associated Press

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