Tourists And Pilgrims Flock To Vatican For Easter
Christopher Furlong  /  Getty Images
Pilgrims re-enact the stations of the cross on Good Friday in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City. As Catholic pilgrims flocked to Rome, Pope John Paul II continued to suffer with frail health and remained in his private apartment. 
By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 3/25/2005 4:54:17 PM ET 2005-03-25T21:54:17

As Pope John Paul II continues to suffer from serious illness, his absence during major Holy Week religious observations at the Vatican leading up to the celebration of Easter has been keenly felt.

On Good Friday, he appeared via video at the Way of the Cross commemoration of Christ’s suffering at Rome’s Colosseum, and he sent a message that was read by the vicar of Rome.

As NBC News' Stephen Weeke reports from Vatican City, Pope John Paul's very public suffering has served to put the meaning of the Easter holiday into context for many Roman Catholics.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, a senior Vatican cardinal who stood in for Pope John Paul at a Holy Thursday ceremony at the Vatican, said the ailing pontiff was "serenely abandoning" himself to God's will. What does that statement mean about the Vatican’s attitude toward the pope’s current condition? Have they accepted that these may be his final days?
What the "serene abandonment" refers to is what all Catholics are called to do — which is to surrender their will to God. Since Christ had to surrender his will to the father’s will, so does the pope surrender his will to the father, especially in this time of sickness and unpredictability as to how long he has left on this planet and in this job.

However, it is also a reflection of how throughout the Vatican, and throughout the Church, there is nobody who can deny the fact that the pope could die and he could die very soon.

So, it is another way of turning one of the essentials of the religion into an example of suffering.  

Who are the people who are taking care of the pope on a daily basis? Is it now down to his inner circle and who are they?
The inner circle is made up of the five Polish nuns who take care of him.

One of them, and this isn’t publicly known, is a trained doctor. She has been with him throughout his entire papacy and is probably better versed on his true medical condition than any of the other doctors who have treated him.

Then there is his personal secretary, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. He was the pope’s personal secretary in Krakow, when the pope was a bishop there and then a cardinal.

The relationship between Pope John Paul and Dziwisz is almost that of a marriage. They’ve been together nearly 50 years and if there is anyone who can read the pope’s mind, it’s Stanislaw. It is widely recognized within the Vatican that he is actually the person who is most in charge because he gets to execute and speak the pope’s will for him.

There is another Polish secretary in there and the pope’s butler. His butler is an Italian man who has been serving the pope for his entire pontificate as well. He handles his clothing and various levels of on-hand personal assistance. That’s the inner circle right now caring for him in the apartment.

Anyone else who is being allowed in beyond that circle, is strictly on an 'as needed' basis. The doctors, the medical team from the hospital, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano, Cardinal Ratzinger, the essentials are being brought in. But there is a great fear of infection at the moment, from germs that might lead to a bronchial situation that could be life threatening. So people are being kept to a limit.

Pope John Paul II is not participating in the Good Friday Masses and the Stations of the Cross today. How is the lack of his leadership being felt by his flock?
It is being perceived more as a disappointment for those who have made special pilgrimages to come here, which many people do. Many Catholics do that as a once-in-a-lifetime trip, especially to come here at Easter.

In terms of a lack of leadership, in real terms, it is not that much different than what the administration has been like over the last five years. Most decisions in the Vatican run of their own accord. All of the big decisions and big changes were made earlier in this papacy.

So, the stuff that he needs to do personally in terms of appointing bishops and signing off on certain documents that are being written in his name, or the Vatican’s name, he can still do.

It is a lack of perceived leadership and a lack of presence. Even though it had been severely reduced in past years, the pope’s presence had at least been dependable in terms of the Sunday appearance, the Wednesday general audience appearance for about an hour, and then his presence at the major liturgical celebrations. So reducing even that down to an absence or at best a one minute video link appearance, is difficult for the church.

How does the pope’s very public decline ultimately play into his most important message about the sanctity of life? 
The sanctity of life has been one of his strongest tenets. The other one has also been the dignity of every human being — regardless of who they are or what condition they are in.

So, as he made an example throughout his life of dignified and moral behavior, he is now applying that to the struggles of physical weakness and pain. His suffering is his way of making public the suffering of Christ, that any man or woman can go through on earth and offer up in thanks to God, according to the Catholic faith.

So he has set an example by making all of his suffering public and he is still doing that now.

To show the world that life is pain, but that you can suffer and get closer to God, through that suffering.

Does the Vatican expect that the pope’s condition will dampen Easter celebrations or draw more attention to the real religious importance of the holiday?
Well, the pope is king and his absence from ‘court,’ as it were, is extremely noticeable. It is a news story itself, because it is the first time in 26 years that he has had to sit out these most important ceremonies in the Catholic year.

But, it is bringing more media attention. The church doesn’t always want to admit that the media is as important as in many cases the pope himself said it was. But it is drawing the world’s attention to his absence, and by virtue of that to his suffering and his sickness.

But, the Vatican, in terms of the leadership and the top cardinals, are resigned to the fact that this is going to play out as it does. There isn’t much that anyone can do to affect things. No matter what state he is in, he’s still in charge. He is still the number one authority in the Catholic Church and he can’t be contradicted.

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Bureau Chief in Rome.

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