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Pope Leads Candlelight Vigil Before Easter Sunday

Pope John Paul II led a solemn candlelight vigil in the final hours before Easter Sunday, pushing forward with his tiring schedule of Holy Week ceremonies.

The ailing 82-year-old pontiff, who has trouble walking and suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease, has scaled down his role in some services. But he attends all key ceremonies, including the vigil in St. Peter's Basilica that marks the time after Christ's death but before his resurrection.

The pontiff was wheeled into the darkened basilica late Saturday in the chariot he uses to get around. Clerics lit the crowd's candles one-by-one until hundreds of flickering flames filled the church.

"O sublime mystery of this holy night! The night in which we relive the extraordinary event of the resurrection," the pope said in his homily. "If Christ were to have remained a prisoner of the tomb, humanity and all of creation, in a certain way, would have lost their meaning. But you, Christ, are truly risen."

Holy Week is a wearing time for John Paul, with a packed schedule of public appearances. He presided at Mass twice on Holy Thursday and performed a Good Friday service at the Colosseum before Saturday's vigil.

Nonetheless, the pontiff appeared relatively strong Saturday night, carrying out the traditional baptism of new members of the Church. This year, he baptized seven people, one each from the United States, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Burundi, Japan and Italy.

John Paul was to have only a few hours rest before celebrating Easter Mass on Sunday morning. During that celebration, the pontiff delivers his "Urbi et Orbi" message -- Latin for "To the City and to the World."

Saturday's homily stuck to religious themes, but his Easter message could well turn to the war in Iraq. The pontiff was opposed to the war and has expressed concern for the victims.