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Pope Skips Holy Thursday Mass

An absent Pope John Paul II (search) sent his greetings to prelates and priests packed into St. Peter's Basilica for Holy Thursday Mass, the latest Holy Week event the ailing pontiff has been forced to skip following throat surgery one month ago.

Vatican officials played down concerns about John Paul II's health as the frail pontiff made yet another silent and brief appearance Wednesday from his apartment window overlooking St. Peter's Square (search).

He had not been expected to preside at the Holy Thursday Mass, and his stand-in, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re (search), read a brief greeting from the pope containing assurances he was following the service on television.

In his homily, the Italian cardinal thanked the pope "for the testimony that he continues to give us with his example of serene abandonment to God."

Possibly hoping he could participate in some way in the long Way of the Cross procession, the pope hadn't delegated anyone as of Wednesday to take his place in the event at Rome's Colosseum. However, his fragile state since surgery Feb. 24 to insert a breathing tube in his throat made it unlikely he would take part in the procession on the evening of Good Friday.

Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, in an effort to assuage fears about the pope's condition, told reporters in Rome on Wednesday, "I don't believe that the situation is alarming."

Holy Week, which culminates this Sunday with Easter observances, draws big crowds to Rome for the ceremonies, which John Paul has presided over throughout his 26-year pontificate. But this year, except for an Easter blessing, John Paul has designated cardinals to lead Holy Week events.

The pope's Wednesday appearance lasted about one minute, instead of the usual hour-plus audiences that the pontiff traditionally holds with the faithful on Wednesdays.

Commenting on the anxious faithful, Vatican Radio said: "The pope appears and the tension dissolves." John Paul "wanted to show his own nearness to the people," it said.

The Vatican says the pope is continuing his ministry for the world's more than 1 billion Catholics. On Wednesday, he named a bishop for Morocco and made appointments for the Pontifical Academy for Life.

For years, John Paul has battled the effects of Parkinson's disease, which hampers control of muscles, including those used in facial expression, to breathe and to swallow as well as to walk and to make other movements.