Illness may force Pope to sit out Sunday mass

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The Independent Online

The Pope may delegate celebration of the Easter Sunday mass for the first time in his 24-year tenure today because of a painful knee condition.

The once active pontiff has had to sit out several masses because the time spent standing and speaking would have exhausted and pained him. Vatican officials say his role in each ceremony will be judged on a case-by-case basis.

After the Popemobile, the walking stick and the mobile platform pushed by ushers that transports him along the nave of St Peter's, the next step for the 81-year-old Polish pontiff may be a wheelchair.

A leading Vatican watcher reported yesterday that a state-of-the-art wheelchair had arrived and could be put to use if the Pope's condition degenerated further. According to Marco Politi, of la Repubblica newspaper, the wheelchair was the fruit of the concern of Giorgia, an 11-year-old girl from the Veneto region.

The youngster, whose father owns a company producing mechanical aids for the disabled, wrote to the Pope two years ago remarking on how weary he looked and offering to donate him a wheelchair.

Instead of receiving the normal polite thank-you card, the family was contacted by senior Vatican officials.

Last month, Giorgia and her father delivered the white-lacquered battery-powered wheelchair. "I reinforced the shock absorbers on the back wheels, the back rest is adjustable ... and the seat can be enlarged or reduced," Giorgia's father told la Repubblica. "We could even put on a system that would allow the whole chair to be lifted up so he could be seen at his balcony window without having to stand up," he said.

Arthrosis, the joint disease that has attacked the Pope's right knee, is not as serious as the many other health problems that have afflicted him since the early 1990s, when the first signs of Parkinson's disease appeared.

The pontiff has survived a colon tumour, a dislocated shoulder and a broken hip, which was replaced with a prosthesis. The intense pain is worsened by standing and kneeling and can only be treated with anti-inflammatory medicine or cortisone.

The elderly Pope, once a keen skier and mountain climber, has always fiercely resisted efforts to trim his ambitious schedule – at times openly defying his medical staff. Yet in the past couple of years, with increased shaking of his hand and head, and slurred speech, he has reluctantly accepted his physical limits.

On Thursday, he had to abandon the ceremony in which the Pope is supposed to wash the feet of priests, which recalls Christ's gesture to his apostles. For the first time in his papacy, the Pope allowed two cardinals – Angelo Sodano and Roger Etchegaray – to perform the ritual.

The symptoms of Parkinson's were evident on Thursday. The Pope's hands could be seen trembling and his speech was often slurred. He also seemed unsure of his balance on his cart as he raised his hand in blessing. Yesterday, he spent about an hour at St Peter's basilica listening to the confessions of five men and four women picked at random from the faithful.

At last night's Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) ceremony to the Colosseum, the Pope, his face weary, observed the candlelit procession from a throne on the Palatine Hill. Until last year, he regularly carried the wooden cross for much of the procession. Today, the Pope is due to preside at an Easter vigil service at St Peter's basilica.

Senior Vatican officials are reported to be extremely concerned about how the bad knee will affect the Pope's travel plans for this year. Even coming down the steps of an aircraft would be an ordeal that only a wheelchair could resolve.