Last audience as Pope prepares for full Christmas schedule
Pope John Paul II held his last general audience of the year yesterday, appearing in relatively good form but making it only halfway through his speech to an audience of some 10,000 pilgrims.
The Holy Father's fragile health is reported to be once again under scrutiny as he heads into the demanding Christmas season.
Yesterday he was treated to Christmas carols from around the globe and a visit from an Austrian choir dressed up like the Three Wise Men. At the end of the audience, the pope was unable to carry on with his full Christmas wishes to the faithful.
He is facing a full schedule Christmas week, starting on Monday when he exchanges Christmas greetings in his official apartments with the cardinals and other officials at the Holy See.
On Christmas Eve, he is scheduled to celebrate the traditional midnight mass at St Peter's. The following day he delivers his Christmas message to the faithful gathered in St Peter's Square before pronouncing the solemn blessing to the Catholic world known as "urbi et orbi". Then he will close the Vatican's year with a ceremony of thanksgiving in St Peter's on 31 December.
Security ahead of Christmas has been boosted in the Vatican, one of several thousand sensitive sites across Italy considered by police a potential terrorist target. The measures have included the unprecedented nighttime closing of the via Della Conciliazione, the broad avenue that leads to St Peter's.
Pope holds last audience (The Advertiser 17/12/03)
General Audience: Jesus comes to stay with us forever (Vatican Information Service 17/12/03)
17 million have attended weekly papal audiences (Vatican Information Service 17/12/03)
Final weekly papal audience for 2003 (Catholic World News 17/12/03)
General Audience of John Paul II - Wednesday, 17 December 2003
18 Dec 2003