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.

Photos: Pope John Paul II's historic papacy

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  1. Pope John Paul II waves to the crowd during a visit to his Polish homeland in 1997. In his 26 years as pope, he nominated 483 saints, held more than 1,100 general audiences at the Vatican, issued 14 encyclicals on moral, religious and social issues, and traveled the world. Click for images, along with a timeline of the notable events in his life, before and during the papacy. (Wojtek Laski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 1932

    Karol Wojtyla, seen here at age 12, was born on May 18, 1920, in the small southern Polish town of Wadowice, near Krakow. His father is a non-commissioned officer in the Polish army and his mother dies when he is eight years old. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 1939

    With talk of war in the air, Karol Wojtyla, second from right, works with unidentified colleagues to build a military camp in western Ukraine that summer.
    1942 After the Nazi invasion, Wojtyla decides to become a priest but the Nazis had closed the seminaries so he studies secretly at the residence of the Krakow cardinal, working in a quarry by day.

    1946 Wojtyla is ordained at the age of 26 and goes to Rome for advanced studies. (Adam Gatty / Il Giornale via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 1967

    The late Pope Paul VI places the cardinal's hat on the head of Karol Wojtyla, declaring him a cardinal in 1967.

    1964 He is promoted to archbishop of Krakow. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 1978

    Karol Wojtyja, now newly-elected Pope John Paul II, acknowledges cheers from pilgrims crowding Saint Peter's Square in his first appearance as pope on Oct. 16. He is the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, the 264th successor of St Peter and, at 58, the youngest pope for more than a century. (Massimo Sambucetti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 1979

    Pope John Paul II gestures to the crowd at New York's Shea Stadium after his arrival Oct. 3, 1979. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 1980

    Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh with Pope John Paul II during the royal tour of Italy, 1980. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 1981

    The hand of Mehmed Ali Agca, holding a pistol, left, aims from the crowd at Pope John Paul in St. Peter's Square on May 13. Moments later the pontiff is shot and seriously wounded. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 1983

    Pope John Paul II talks to his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in his prison cell in Rome in Dec. 27. Agca is serving a life sentence for shooting the pontiff.

    1999 The pope says the teachings of Christ instructed him to forgive Agca. (Arturo Mari / Vatican via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 1987

    Pope John Paul II walks with President Ronald Reagan in the garden of the Vizcaya, a lavish mansion on Biscayne Bay, Miami, Sept. 10, 1987. (Scott Stewart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 1987

    Pope John Paul II poses in San Francisco , Ca, with the Golden Gate Bridge in background, on Sept. 17, 1987. (Dave Tennenbaum / ASSOCIATED PRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 1989

    Pope John Paul II welcomes Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to the first-ever meeting between a Kremlin chief and a pope at the Vatican Dec. 1. After the visit, the pope steps up the re-establishment of the Catholic Church throughout the East bloc, a move that parallels the crumbling of communist regimes across the region. (Massimo Sabucetti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 1995

    Pope John Paul II and South African President Nelson Mandela talking at the Presidential guest house in Pretoria. (Gary Bernard / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 1995

    Pope John Paul II prays during Mass at Camden Yards in Baltimore on Oct. 8. During his papacy, the pope travels the equivalent of 30 times the circumference of the earth, making more than 100 foreign trips and spending more than three years away from the Vatican. (Denis Paquin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 1996

    Pope John Paul II during his vacation in Cadore, Val Comelico, Italy. (Pool / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 1998

    Pope John Paul II, riding in the Popemobile, passes a painting of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara during a landmark visit to Cuba. He mixes criticism of communism with criticism of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Cuban leader Fidel Castro says during the trip that he believes in God.

    1993 Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease begin to appear and the pontiff appears increasingly frail, but maintains a rigorous travel schedule. The pope’s left hand trembles and his facial muscles appear stiff during appearances. In later years, he becomes unable to walk and is carried in a special transporter from planes to his Popemobile. (Domenico Stinellis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 1999

    Pope John Paul II is seen near the bronze Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Christmas Eve. Faltering at times, the frail pontiff walks through the door in a symbolic ceremony to mark the start of the church's third millennium.

    March 12, 2000 In an unprecedented public act of repentance, the pope delivers the most sweeping papal apology ever, repenting for the errors of the Roman Catholic Church over the previous 2,000 years. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. 2000

    Pope John Paul rests his hand on the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 26. The trip is the culmination of one of the pontiff's lifetime ambitions and follows a historic, and sometimes tumultuous, dialogue with Jews.

    1986 The pope visits the Rome Synagogue in the first visit ever by a pontiff to a Jewish house of worship.

    1987 The pope grants an audience to Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, angering Jews who accused Waldheim of Nazi war crimes.

    1993 The Vatican and Israel forge full diplomatic ties, aimed at ending 2,000 years of distrust and hostility between Christians and Jews.

    1998 The Vatican apologizes for Catholics who failed to help Jews persecuted by the Nazis. (Jerome Delay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. 2001

    Pope John Paul II, left, embraces Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the day Bergoglio was elevated to cardinal in Vatican City. Bergoglio was elected pope on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, making him the first pope ever from the Americas. Bergoglio chose the name Pope Francis. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. 2002

    After a series of sex scandals involving priests and minors rocks the church in the United States, the pope summons a dozen American cardinals and two high-ranking bishops to the Vatican on April 23. Over two days the Americans, joined by the heads of the eight most senior Vatican departments, attempt to hammer out a process for defrocking any priest involved in the "predatory sexual abuse of minors." (Arturo Mari / Vatican via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. 2002

    Pope John Paul II waves to an estimated 2.7 million people during a Mass in Krakow's Blonie meadow on Aug. 18. The pontiff uses his ninth trip home, which many feared would be his last, to address the plight of the poor and jobless in Poland as well as discuss his own mortality. (Vatican via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. 2005

    Pope John Paul II gives a silent blessing from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square on March 30. A day later, the pontiff, after being hospitalized twice during the previous two months, develops a high fever. On April 1, a papal spokesman described the pope's condition as "very grave." A day later, the pope died. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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