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Ahead of Palm Sunday, pope reflects on his sufferings

VATICAN CITY -- In a highly personal message to priests, Pope John Paul II said yesterday he was uniting his sufferings with those of Christ in advance of Holy Week services and the first Palm Sunday Mass he will skip in his 26-year papacy.

John Paul's reflections were written during his 2½-week hospitalization at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic, where he was taken for the second time in a month because of breathing problems.

He was discharged Sunday and is convalescing at his apartment with a view of St. Peter's Square. Accepting the advice of his doctors, John Paul's only Holy Week commitment is an Easter Sunday blessing.

The 84-year-old pontiff has designated other prelates to stand in for him.

Vatican officials said John Paul is expected to appear Palm Sunday at his window overlooking the square, but it was not known whether he planned to speak.

John Paul has been heard speaking publicly only twice since undergoing throat surgery Feb. 24. Each time, he spoke just a few sentences in a raspy voice.

The letter released yesterday contained his most personal comments on his fragile health since Feb. 1, when he was rushed to the hospital for the first time last month.

''My thoughts turn to you, dear priests, as I spend this time recuperating in hospital, a patient alongside other patients, uniting in the Eucharist my own sufferings with those of Christ," John Paul wrote.

''In this spirit I want to reflect with you on some aspects of our priestly spirituality," the letter said.

''All the world followed the suffering of the Holy Father and how his thoughts went out to all," said Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican's office for priests, in introducing the message at a Vatican news conference.

John Paul has traditionally celebrated Holy Thursday Mass, when thousands of priests fill St. Peter's Basilica to renew their vows. This year, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican's office for bishops, will preside.

The pope also will skip another ritual that day, the washing of the feet of 12 priests to commemorate Christ's Last Supper with his apostles.

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