Pope blesses pilgrims

VATICAN CITY – In dramatic illustration of his decline, a grimacing Pope John Paul II appeared before thousands of Easter pilgrims Sunday and struggled to speak but ultimately failed.

The pope has not been heard in public since his release from the hospital two weeks ago, and Sunday’s appearance was a bittersweet moment for the faithful who crowded into St. Peter’s Square for the culmination of Christianity’s holiest week.

“This was the most emotional thing in the world for me, to see the holy father,” said Maria Ines Saavedra, 50, who traveled to Rome from Teziutlan, Mexico. “But all I could hear from him was a little hoarse croak. I am very worried that his health is still so delicate.”

For the first time since his papacy began in 1978, an ailing John Paul has been absent from Easter festivities, which began with Palm Sunday and have included major liturgical services throughout the week.

Finally, on a blustery, overcast Easter Sunday, he appeared at the window of his Vatican residence overlooking the square as a substitute, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, concluded a solemn Easter Mass on the flower-bedecked steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Sodano then read the Urbi et Orbi message, Latin for “to the city and to the world,” that the pope had been scheduled to deliver, at least in part. The pontiff coughed and made facial expressions that suggested pain or frustration, but he was alert and followed the message closely, leafing through each page of the text.

Sodano turned the ceremony over to John Paul for a final blessing. An aide put a microphone in front of the pope but when he tried to speak, all that came out was a raspy sound. The aide quickly removed the microphone. Instead, the pope made a sign of the cross, blessing the crowd below. They cheered and applauded when he appeared, but as he tried to speak, many people gasped and began to weep. In all, the pope’s appearance lasted about 12 minutes.

Pilgrims in the square had come from all over the world. Two months shy of his 85th birthday and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, the pope has sought to use his waning days as a public testament to the redemptive nature of suffering.

“Just his presence, even without saying anything, means a lot,” said Anna Rosa Mantovani, a resident of Bologna, Italy, who had come to St. Peter’s Square with her husband and son.

“It’s a shame to see him like this, but he’s doing his best,” said Tony Jacobson, a retiree from Liverpool, England. “He’s not letting us down, putting himself through this,” agreed his wife, Joyce, “but I doubt you’ll see him again.”

Associated Press

Pope John Paul II delivers a blessing from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square on Sunday at the Vatican.

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