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Pope cuts Christmas schedule

A few days ago, Pope John Paul II advised the faithful to celebrate Christmas far from the "noise and bustle" of modern life, and that is precisely how he plans to spend the holiday himself.

His usual busy Christmas schedule has been cut to a minimum because of his advanced 83 years, and the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. But he will still celebrate Midnight Mass in St Peter's Basilica at 11:00 am Sydney time.

The Mass will be broadcast live on Internet by Vatican TV from 9.55 am Sydney time, and on ABC TV in Australia from 11:00 am in all time zones.

On Christmas day itself, the Holy Father's only announced public engagement will be his blessing "to the city and to the world" from the loggia of St Peter's basilica.

The loggia overlooks St Peter's Square, which has been decorated with a 27-metre tree and a manger scene.

The pope's private physician, Renato Buzzonetti, advised him to cut back his activities because of tiredness following the gruelling program organised around the 25th anniversary of his election in October.

The pope has appeared relatively well since then. His gaze is less set and the trembling of his hands less pronounced, say those who know him, although his speech remains slurred and indistinct.

While the pope plans to celebrate midnight mass, he is leaving it to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, to officiate over the main Christmas Day service in St Peter's Square.

But the Holy Father is expected to attend the mass, seated on a special chair that Vatican workmen have adapted so that he can reach the high altar for the consecration of the Eucharist. The chalice holding the wine is made of extremely lightweight titanium.

Several events have been dropped from the pope's program at the end of the year, including his weekly general audience on 31 December. Instead, he will officiate a mass of thanksgiving for the year in St Peter's basilica, and on the following day he will again celebrate a mass marking the church's observance of a World Day Of Peace.

Meanwhile Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels has told the Italian weekly Famiglia Christiana that the pope may be physically weakened, but his intellectual powers remain unimpaired.

"His head is all there," Danneels said. "You need only listen to what he says every Wednesday at his general audiences. These are texts he has written personally and there is no difference in quality between them and those he wrote in the past."

Danneels, however, reiterated his view that a pope should be able to resign.

"But he should not do so under external pressure, from the bishops, from the Roman curia or from the media, and there should not be an age limit, such as 75 or 80," he said.

In a variation on this theme, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told Vatican Radio on Monday that while the Pope is suffering physically, "he is very strong spiritually".

In the same interview, Ratzinger admitted that the Roman Curia is a "large bureaucracy" subject to human weaknesses.

He said: "We are all men, and that means we have human weaknesses."

However he went on to say that the officials of the Curia "all have the intention of serving the Holy Father, the Church, and the Lord with all their abilities." He said that there are "many people who work with humility and devotion" in the service of the Vatican. "Despite the human limitations that it will always have," he said, he believes the Curia is "really a faithful instrument in the Pope's hands, in service to the Church and to Christ."

Pope cuts Xmas schedule (The Advertiser 24/12/03)
Pope's health weak, but spiritual life strong, Cardinal Ratzinger reports (Catholic World News 22/12/03)

Christmas-Lite program planned for pope (AFP/Yahoo 24/12/03)
An ailing pope aided by circle of confidants (Washington Post/MSNBC)

24 Dec 2003