- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

ROME — A top Vatican cardinal stood in for Pope John Paul II during the Easter Vigil Mass yesterday, sparing the ailing pontiff from a lengthy ceremony and allowing him to rest up for Easter today, when he was expected to bless the faithful.

German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a close papal aide, celebrated the hourslong meditation in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Mass typically goes late into the night as the faithful prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter, the most joyous event of the church calendar.

In a message read by Cardinal Ratzinger at the start of the service, John Paul assured the crowd he was watching the Mass on television in his Vatican apartment — increasingly the way the frail pope participates in church events.

He asked them to pray “that the world sees and recognizes that through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, that which was destroyed is rebuilt, that which was old is renewed and that everything returns more beautiful than before to its original integrity.”

As expected, John Paul did not appear via video link to the faithful as he did Friday night during the Way of the Cross procession at Rome’s torchlit Colosseum.

During that ceremony, the 84-year-old John Paul was seen in his private chapel watching the two-hour procession on a television screen underneath the altar. The images of the pope were flashed periodically on giant TV screens to the crowds gathered at the Colosseum for the commemoration of Christ’s walk to his crucifixion.

By yesterday evening, a long line of the faithful had gathered outside the basilica for the vigil Mass.

For the first time in his 26-year pontificate, John Paul has been physically absent from this year’s Holy Week events, weakened by Parkinson’s disease and a Feb. 24 surgery to insert a breathing tube in his throat.

“It pains him to be on the sidelines,” the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano wrote yesterday.

The pontiff traditionally has used the Easter message to reflect on war, poverty and terrorism. He also has delivered an annual Easter greeting in some 60 languages to the delight of the thousands of tourists and faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican said John Paul was expected only to give a blessing this year. It was not clear if he would utter any words or just silently bless the crowd as he did on Palm Sunday.

John Paul last spoke to the faithful on March 13, shortly before he was released from the hospital for the second time in a month. During that brief appearance, he thanked the crowds gathered beneath his hospital suite and wished them a good Sunday and good week.

Meanwhile, the Vatican was jolted yesterday by a man who climbed over a security railing atop the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and remained for about three hours before being overpowered by firefighters and brought to safety. The man was believed to have a history of psychiatric problems.

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