Rome — Pope John Paul II, not strong enough to walk with a cross in the Good Friday procession, stood as the ceremony neared its end and, for a few minutes, held the cross that had been carried by other celebrants.
Recalling the suffering of Jesus as his crucifixion approached, John Paul's own suffering was evident. Stooped, trembling and often grimacing in pain, John Paul has been unable to carry on like he has for years.
But the pontiff has insisted on celebrating Easter ceremonies and the Vatican is setting up a special altar in St. Peter's Basilica to avoid having him climb steps, a top papal aide said.
"The pope is better than he was at the beginning of Holy Week, so much so that tomorrow (Saturday) night and Sunday, it is foreseen that the pope himself will celebrate" the Easter Masses, Monsignor Piero Marini, who assists John Paul at major public ceremonies, told Italian state TV as he awaited the pontiff's arrival at the Colosseum for the candlelit Good Friday procession.
Because John Paul "doesn't want to give up" tonight's ceremony, "we'll try to avoid the steps that lead to the central altar of St. Peter's by constructing an altar at the foot" of the main altar, said Marini, who in recent years has offered the pope his arm when the pontiff's strength appeared to be waning in long ceremonies.
The Vatican hasn't said what caused the pope to scale back his participation in Holy Week ceremonies, but said in February that arthrosis, a joint disease, in one of his knees, was to blame for the cancellation of several public appearances.
Thousands of faithful, holding flickering candles, gathered in the night for the Good Friday procession. John Paul used to walk the distance, carrying a wooden cross at the head of the procession. But last year, John Paul, who turns 82 in May, bowed to his condition and only walked a short stretch.
John Paul, who became pontiff in 1978, suffers a Parkinson's disease-like tremor and has had difficulty walking since a 1994 hip surgery.
This year, as the procession drew to a close, John Paul stood up from his chair on a rise overlooking the faithful and gripped the wooden cross. But he took no steps. His lips were pressed closed in what appeared to be prayerful concentration.
A crimson capelet over white robes offered some protection against the damp chill of the night.
Earlier, John Paul read a prayer: "Peace to those near and far. Peace to you, Jerusalem, city beloved by the Lord."
John Paul did keep up one Good Friday tradition. He spent an hour in the Basilica hearing confessions from five women and four men of various nationalities chosen from the crowd.
A day earlier, on Holy Thursday, for the first time in his papacy, John Paul let two cardinals perform the ritual washing and kissing of the feet of priests, a ritual symbolizing humility. On Palm Sunday and in ceremonies Thursday, the pope sat on the side while a cardinal celebrated Mass.
The ongoing decrease in John Paul's strength and stamina has been dramatic. Just a year ago, the pope was able to move down a line of a dozen seated, white-robed priests, pouring water on each man's right foot from a golden pitcher, wiping them dry and bringing the feet to his lips.