POPE JOHN PAUL II PRAYS DURING ASH WEDNESDAY AT THE VATICAN
Max Rossi  /  Reuters
Pope John Paul II prays as he leads an Ash Wednesday celebration in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
updated 2/25/2004 8:32:08 AM ET 2004-02-25T13:32:08

Pope John Paul II opened the church’s solemn Lenten season by presiding over an Ash Wednesday celebration — held this year in the Vatican instead of at a Roman basilica to spare the ailing pontiff a trip across the city.

John Paul appeared in good form as he started a busy Lenten schedule that will include a beatification ceremony, special Masses at the Vatican with Roman parishioners, a Good Friday prayer service at the Coliseum and Easter Mass on April 11 in St. Peter’s Square.

Dressed in bright purple and silver vestments, John Paul smudged ashes on the heads of cardinals, bishops and rank-and-file faithful — a ritual sign of one’s own mortality that opens Lent, the church’s period of penitence, sacrifice and reflection that leads up to Easter.

In his homily, delivered in its entirety and in a strong and clear voice, John Paul told the faithful that these weeks in which Catholics often fast or perform works of charity can bring them closer to God.

“Exterior gestures of penitence have value if they are expressions of an interior attitude, if they show the firm willingness to move away from evil and take the path of good,” he said.

John Paul also asked the faithful to pay particular attention to the plight of children around the world, saying they are often abandoned and in need of special care.

“Who more than the defenseless and fragile young need to be defended and protected?” John Paul said.

Ceremony shifted to accommodate ailing pontiff
For years, John Paul had marked Ash Wednesday at St. Sabina’s Basilica, a 5th-century church on Rome’s Aventine Hill.

But the Vatican shifted the ceremony this year to the Vatican, eliminating the taxing drive across Rome and the transfer from cars to the wheeled decorative chair he has been using to get around.

John Paul, 83, no longer walks or stands in public as a result of hip and knee problems and Parkinson’s disease. Over the past year, he began having assistants read his homilies, but lately he has been reading the texts himself and has appeared stronger.

Lent ends in Holy Week, the seven days starting with Palm Sunday that lead up to Easter.

The Vatican said this week that John Paul would preside at the prayer service at the Coliseum re-enacting Christ’s Passion. In past years, John Paul walked in the Coliseum procession as he carried a cross, but recent Good Fridays have seen faithful carry the cross and make the symbolic Stations of the Cross walk while the pope observed and read a homily.

The pontiff, who as pope is also bishop of Rome, had made it a hallmark of his papacy to visit each one of Rome’s parishes. Over 25 years, he made it to 301 out of 334 of them in Sunday morning visits. But the growing toll of his physical ailments eventually put a stop to those visits.

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