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Pope begins run-up to Easter amid tighter security

Amid tight security at the Vatican, Pope John Paul on Thursday started four hectic days of services leading up to Easter by telling priests their behavior must always be exemplary.
Pope John Paul II hoists the Holy Host during the Chrism Mass celebrated inside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, April 8.
Pope John Paul II hoists the Holy Host during the Chrism Mass celebrated inside St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, April 8.Andrew Medichini / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Amid tight security at the Vatican, Pope John Paul on Thursday started four hectic days of services leading up to Easter by telling priests their behaviour must always be exemplary.

The 83-year-old pope presided at a Holy Thursday “Mass of the Chrism” in St. Peter’s Basilica during which he and priests renewed the vows they took when they were first ordained.

“The Christian people want to see us above all as men of prayer. Those who see us must experience from our words and our behaviour the faithful and merciful love of God,” he said.

The Catholic Church is still reeling from scandals that have tarnished its image in the United States and other Western countries where priests have sexually abused children.

He did not mention the scandal in his homily, which the ailing pontiff read without difficulty. But his words were the latest in a series of calls to priests to remember their vows, including that of celibacy, and to shun all behaviour that could cause scandal.

Security has been heightened around the Vatican since Easter season celebrations began four days ago on Palm Sunday. While no specific threat has been made public, officials say they are on guard to thwart possible attacks in crowded places.

As the pope was saying mass inside St Peter’s Basilica, police were checking and sealing manhole covers near St Peter’s Square.

Last week, Italian media reported that intelligence agencies had warned the Vatican that the pope, who was shot in 1981, might be the target of an attack during the Easter period.

Italy’s Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu told parliament on Wednesday that security officials had identified more than 13,000 potential targets for attacks, many of them churches.

The days leading up to Easter are the most intense in the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar and are a keenly watched test of the stamina of the pope, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and no longer walks in public.

In recent months, the pope’s condition has appeared to be much better than it was during celebrations marking his 25th anniversary in office last October, when aides had to read many of his addresses for him.

On Thursday evening, the pope will preside at another mass recalling Christ’s Last Supper with his apostles.

On Good Friday he presides at two services commemorating the passion and death of Christ.

On Holy Saturday he presides at an Easter Eve mass and on Easter Sunday he will celebrate mass in St Peter’s Square and deliver his twice yearly Urbi et Orbi (to the city and world) blessing and message.