Frail pope commemorates Good Friday procession kneeling

Saturday, April 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROME (AP) _ Pope John Paul II presided over the traditional commemoration of Christ's suffering and crucifixion _ kneeling for most of the annual Good Friday ritual to spare himself from walking the half-mile around Rome's ancient Colosseum.

It was the first time that the 80-year-old pontiff remained physically on the sidelines of the Good Friday procession, joining in only at the end to mark the last stations of the cross, which chart the final hours before Christ's death.

John Paul viewed the bulk of the procession from a podium on the Palatine hill outside the 2,000-year-old arena, which was bathed in golden torchlight against Rome's clear, night sky.

On Saturday, he was to preside over a candlelit Easter vigil in St. Peter's Basilica. It was to have taken place in St. Peter's Square, to accommodate the 25,000 people expected to attend, but was moved back indoors because of a cold rain Saturday.

In comments to the thousands of faithful ending Friday's ceremony, one of Christianity's most solemn, John Paul scrapped his prepared text and instead spoke off-the-cuff to recall that the Roman Catholic Church had marked Christ's crucifixion for 2,000 years.

``Today, for the first time in this third millennium ... we proclaim it in all the world and here in Rome, with this Via Crucis inside the Roman Colosseum,'' he said, his voice tired but clear.

``May this truth be for us the light and strength in these times,'' he said.

John Paul, who has trouble walking and suffers from the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, carried a light wooden cross for only the last station, handing off the cane he had used to his private secretary and walking the few steps slowly, unassisted, clutching the cross with both hands.

John Paul has scaled back his participation in the annual rite in recent years, first in 1995 after hip-replacement surgery forced him to carry the cross for only part of the procession.

Until this year, however, the pontiff had walked the entire length of the circuit, which begins inside the Colosseum amid the marble and stone relics where gladiators once dueled and then moves to a square outside and up to the Palatine hill nearby.

The Vatican announced this week that in deference to John Paul's health and age, he would watch the procession while kneeling, joining in only at the end. During the ceremony, which lasted for more than an hour, John Paul occasionally sat back from the kneeler.

Bishop Piero Marini, the pope's master of ceremonies, told Italian television that the decision to limit John Paul's participation was made to spare him climbing a steep stone stairwell up to the Palatine terrace, which gave him trouble last year.

Pilgrims from Italy, Rwanda, Thailand and the Dominican Republic carried the cross for the initial 12 stations.

John Paul has had a rigorous Holy Week, presiding over Palm Sunday celebrations and a Holy Thursday Mass, hearing confessions of 12 faithful Friday morning and saying the Passion Mass on Friday afternoon.

He caps the week with Easter Mass on Sunday and his annual Easter greeting _ delivered in more than 50 languages to tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square.

After that, John Paul, who turns 81 on May 18, will have a particularly trying spring.

On May 4, he leaves for a six-day tour of Greece, Syria and Malta, and later in the month presides over a major meeting of the College of Cardinals, summoned to Rome to discuss church strategy in the new millennium.

In June, he is going ahead with a delicate trip to Ukraine, facing protests by the Russian Orthodox church but hoping his efforts for better relations with other Christians can pave the way for a historic trip to Moscow.