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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 March, 2005, 15:56 GMT
Limited role for virtual Pope

By Peter Gould
Religious Affairs analyst

The Pope
The Pope made a silent appearance on Palm Sunday
With John Paul II now back at the Vatican, just how visible will he be this Easter?

The question is being asked by thousands of pilgrims arriving in Rome, all hoping to see the Pope during the traditional Holy Week ceremonies.

His recent health scare means that the Catholic Church may be witnessing the start of a "virtual papacy".

With doctors urging caution over public appearances, the Vatican will make greater use of video links to enable the Pope to be seen by the faithful.

Risk of relapse

"The primary concern is the risk of infection," says John Allen, Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter.

"They are trying to keep as many people as possible away from him, and increasingly his contact with the outside world will be mediated.

"When he is present, it will be symbolic - virtual rather than real. Papal functions will be carried out by others, and endorsed by the Pope."

John Allen
John Allen: More symbolic role
The 84-year-old pontiff is still convalescing after the tracheotomy performed to assist his breathing.

After a period of enforced silence, he is having therapy to help him recover his voice. So far he has said only a few words in public.

The Pope's condition means he will play a less active role during Holy Week. Senior cardinals have been assigned to a number of key ceremonies.

Easter is the most important date in the Christian calendar. Every year, thousands of Catholics travel to Rome to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Reduced commitments

There is an expectation that the Pope - the spiritual leader of 1.1 billion people around the world - will be a visible part of the religious festival.

The physical decline of John Paul II has led to a gradual easing of his Easter commitments in recent years.

He used to wash the feet of twelve priests in an act of humility first performed by Christ for his disciples at the Last Supper. Now the task is performed by a papal aide.

On Good Friday, thousands of Catholics join the Way of the Cross procession at Rome's famous Colosseum, a place where early Christians were martyred.

In future, public appearances like these will be increasingly rare
John Allen, National Catholic Reporter
The Pope used to carry a wooden cross during the candle-lit procession. In recent years, he has been forced to watch the event from a throne.

On Saturday night, the Easter Vigil begins in St Peter's Basilica. One of the Pope's closest advisers, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, will preside.

On Easter Sunday, St Peter's Square is packed with pilgrims from all over the world. This year, the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, will celebrate mass.

In past years, the Pope blessed the crowd in 60 languages. That may now be beyond him, but he is determined to give the traditional Easter blessing, Urbi et Orbi - "to the city and the world".

Holy mission

"The job of the Pope is to announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ," says John Wilkins, former editor of The Tablet.

"It is an important function, symbolic for Catholics, and one that John Paul II can still perform."

Archbishop Leonardo Sandri
The Pope will be aided by men like Archbishop Leonardo Sandri

"He is an icon of the modern age, and this could be one of his last iconic moments."

Thousands of Catholics have crossed the world to see their Pope, perhaps for the only time in their lives.

They know he may appear only briefly, perhaps at his apartment window, or by video link on giant television screens in St Peter's Square.

His medical condition has raised delicate questions about his fitness to cope with the demands of the job.

John Paul II regards the papacy as a mission from God that he cannot abandon.

But many in the Church are now thinking aloud about the possibility of a papal resignation, should his condition worsen.

Email support
The Vatican website posted an email address for the pontiff following his illness. Within 48 hours, more than 20,000 emails had arrived at john_paul_ii@vatican.va

More than ever, the eyes of the Catholic world are on the Vatican.

The faithful are praying for their ailing leader, and wondering how long his remarkable papacy can continue.

John Allen thinks it is a significant moment.

"This Easter could be one of the last periods of time we see the Pope in person in any extended way," he says.

"In future, public appearances like these will be increasingly rare."


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