Pope Presides Over Solemn Easter Vigil

Pope John Paul II marked the approach of Easter on Saturday night with a candlelight vigil in St. Peter's Basilica, the most solemn ceremony in the Catholic calendar.

John Paul, looking tired after a grueling Holy Week, lighted the main candle. The candle's flame was shared with thousands of smaller ones that were distributed to people gathered inside the darkened basilica, which flickered with the little lights and flashbulbs.

"It is not darkness that dominates but the blinding brightness of a sudden light that breaks through with the startling news of the Lord's resurrection," John Paul said.

The 80-year-old pontiff, who has trouble walking and suffers from the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, had to catch his breath occasionally while reciting the prayers and hymns of the 3-hour-long vigil.

But he held up well and smiled as he baptized a young Chinese girl during the ceremony -- and again as he blessed her mother and other people from Albania, Japan, Peru and the United States who received the sacrament Saturday night.

The Easter vigil is the most solemn ceremony of the Catholic liturgical year, marking the final dark hours after Christ's death before the exultation of Easter Sunday.

In the past, John Paul has used his homily to remark on the troubles facing the countries of those baptized, but his remarks Saturday night was strictly on religious themes.

John Paul was to only have a few hours rest before celebrating Easter Mass on Sunday. He also planned to deliver his traditional Easter greeting in more than 50 languages to thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square.

The vigil itself was supposed to have taken place in the square, to accommodate the 25,000 people expected to attend, but was moved inside because of a cold rain Saturday, the Vatican said.