ROME – A top Vatican cardinal stood in for Pope John Paul II (search) during the Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday, sparing the ailing pontiff from a lengthy ceremony and allowing him to rest up for Easter Sunday, when he was expected to bless the faithful.
German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (search), a close papal aide, celebrated the three-hour-long meditation in St. Peter's Basilica. The Mass went late into the night as the faithful prepared to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter, the most joyous event of the church calendar.
In a message read by 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 84-year-old 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 on Friday night, during the Way of the Cross procession at Rome's torch-lit Colosseum (search).
During that ceremony, 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 path to the crucifixion.
By Saturday evening, a long line of the faithful had gathered outside the basilica for the vigil Mass, including Alejandro Alvarez, a 30-year-old seminarian from the Yucatan Archdioceses in Mexico, who noted this would mark the first time the pope was not presiding.
"But we have seen that he follows the celebrations from his room — and that with his heart and spirit and above all with prayers he is present with us," Alvarez said.
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 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 Saturday.
The pontiff traditionally has used the Easter Sunday 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 unclear 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 March 13, shortly before he was released from the hospital for the second time in a month. During that brief appearance, John Paul thanked the crowds gathered beneath his hospital suite and wished them a good Sunday and good week.
Some veteran pope watchers suggested the Vatican might be readying the public for a new stage in the papacy.
"The Vatican hierarchy is experimenting with the possibility — never done before — of achieving a kind of governing (of the Church) by gesture and image," Corriere della Sera's longtime Vatican expert, Luigi Accattoli, wrote Saturday.
"The decisive element in this new phase of the pontificate is TV, which will render the convalescent pope present at events and will make his silent figure a `talking' one," Accattoli said.
Such an approach would be a stark contrast and rapid change for a pope who traveled the world to deliver his message in person, even when health problems made it difficult for him to speak. Just three months ago, John Paul read out Christmas greetings in 62 languages to a delighted crowd.
On Saturday, the Vatican was jolted 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.
The incident did not appear to have any impact on the Vigil Mass or on preparations for Easter Sunday.