A month after undergoing a throat operation to help him breathe, Pope John Paul II's battle with his frail health forced him to watch on television as cardinals began the most intense period of the Easter ceremonies.
A gaunt pope gives his blessing at the window of his studio in Rome
"From my apartment through television, I am spiritually amongst you, my beloved," the 84-year-old pope said in a message read out by Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re at a Holy Thursday ceremony.
Battista Re paid tribute to John Paul II's stoicism, saying his suffering was a "serene example of his abandonment to God which links him to the mystery of the Cross."
The Chrismal mass, in which the holy oils used in liturgical ceremonies throughout the year are blessed, was to be followed later Thursday by an even more solemn ceremony in which Catholics commemorate Christ's Last Supper.
Battista Re was standing in for the pope, missing the Easter ceremonies for the first time in his 26-year pontificate, as ranks of cardinals, bishops, priests and pilgrims packed St. Peter's and choral music swept through the Renaissance basilica.
A woman holding a rosary prays for Pope John Paul II's health.
At another Holy Thursday ceremony in Milan's Duomo, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi paid tribute to John Paul II's "strong and moving" faith. "We assure the pope, once again, of our prayers and affection."
On the sidelines
The ravages of recent illness, old age and Parkinson's disease has forced the pontiff to take a largely peripheral role in this year's ceremonies for Easter Holy Week, the most solemn of the Church calendar when Christians commemorate the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
But one of the Vatican's most senior prelates, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (photo), said that despite his struggle with illness, John Paul II was continuing to lead the world's 1.1 billion Catholics with "absolute lucidity."
"That is also a gift of God considering the physical challenges that John Paul II faces," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told RAI television in an interview.
Ratzinger, the influential German head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the pope's mind "is alive and there is possibly an even stronger discernment." John Paul II has retained "the capacity to choose the essential and to govern, while suffering, with few but crucial decisions," said Raztinger, who will fill in for the absent pope at the Way of the Cross ceremony on Friday.
The pope has always been capable of taking the fundamental decisions, the cardinal added, although he "has certainly revised his activities." The frail 84-year-old pontiff has not spoken in public since March 13, when he was discharged from hospital after a throat operation.
The pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has had to delegate all ceremonies this Easter to his cardinals, except the Urbi et Orbi (to Rome and to the world) blessing on Sunday when he traditionally blessed the faithful in some 60 languages.
Cardinal Angelo Scola said not participating in Friday's Way of the Cross "was certainly a great sacrifice" for the pope. Scola, who is considered a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, said that although the pontiff could not be among the faithful physically, "in a certain sense he will be with them in an even more powerful way."
"This is the great mystery of the Church," said Scola, who is Patriarch of Venice.
Pope John Paul II waves as he leaves Rome's Polyclinic Agostino Gemelli hospital aboard his popemobile, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005.
The pope was rushed to hospital on Feb. 24 for the second time in a month, undergoing tracheotomy surgery within hours, after suffering a relapse of his breathing problems which caused his first hospitalization on Feb. 1.
John Paul II has not spoken in public since being discharged from hospital again on March 13. He appeared to be in distress during each of his minute-long appearances at his apartment window on Sunday and Wednesday, appearances which have failed to quell mounting concern that his recuperation was not going as well as hoped.