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Saturday, 30 March, 2002, 01:35 GMT
Pope sits out Good Friday procession
The Pope waves to the crowd
Good Friday is the busiest day of the four-day festival
A frail Pope John Paul II has been unable to walk with a cross in Good Friday's Easter procession in Rome for the first time in his 23 years as pontiff.

Last year, the Pope was well enough to take part in the final stage of the Way of the Cross ceremony at Rome's ancient Colosseum.

Peace to those near and far. Peace to you, Jerusalem, city beloved by the Lord

Prayer by Pope John Paul II
But this year he sat on a chair on the Palatine Hill in front of the Colosseum to watch the ceremony and briefly clutched a wooden cross that had been carried by other participants in a torchlight procession commemorating the death of Jesus Christ.

The 81-year-old leader of the world's Roman Catholics still has an Easter vigil Mass on Saturday night and another Mass on Easter Sunday.

Monsignor Piero Marini, who assists the Pope at major ceremonies, told Italian television: "The Pope is better than he was at the beginning of Holy Week, so much so that tomorrow (Saturday) night and Sunday, it is foreseen that the Pope himself will celebrate the Easter Masses."

He said they would try to avoid the steps leading to the central altar of St Peter's Basilica by constructing an altar at the foot of the steps.

Weary voice

The Way of the Cross is the Roman Catholic Church's most solemn ceremony on Good Friday.

The Pope spoke in a weary voice, but remembered the troubled Middle East in his prayers.

"Peace to those near and far. Peace to you, Jerusalem, city beloved by the Lord."

Papal health
1981 - shot in stomach and chest
1992 - intestinal tumour removed
1993 dislocates shoulder
1994 - breaks femur
1996 - Parkinson's disease visible

Thousands of people holding flickering candles had gathered in the night for the procession.

But throughout the candlelit ceremony, the Pope sat in deep concentration, his head in his hands.

Earlier, the Pope presided over the Passion of Christ service in St Peter's Basilica, where he was moved around the church on a wheeled platform.

Foot washing

He also spent one hour hearing the confessions of nine worshippers in St Peter's on the second and most gruelling day of the four-day festival.

But on Thursday, he was unable for the first time to participate in the symbolic foot-washing that commemorates the Last Supper.

The pontiff suffers from Parkinson's Disease, as well as an arthritic right knee.

Travel plans
May - Bulgaria
July - Canada, Mexico, Guatemala
August -Poland
The BBC's David Willey, in Rome, says the Pope is determined to deliver his Easter message to the city of Rome on Easter morning.

Last Sunday he failed to celebrate the traditional Palm Sunday mass at St Peter's, choosing to watch from his throne while the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, led the ceremony.

On Thursday he was also seated as the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, symbolically cleansed the feet of 12 priests - an act which commemorates Christ's humility towards his apostles.

Italian newspapers have expressed concern at the Pope's failing health.

List of ailments

"The Pope's Pain" was the front-page headline in Il Messaggero, while Unita opted for "The Calvary of John Paul".

The Pope had a colon tumour removed in 1992, dislocated his shoulder in 1993, broke his femur in 1994, and had his appendix removed in 1996.

He has plans for foreign trips to Bulgaria in May, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala in July, and to his native Poland in August.

See also:

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25 Sep 01 | Europe
Pope's speech raises health fears
10 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
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15 Jun 99 | Europe
Pope's litany of health problems
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