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Crowd cheers pope's Easter blessing

Unable to speak, pontiff makes sign of the cross

VATICAN CITY -- The tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists who thronged St. Peter's Square yesterday cheered -- and some couldn't hold back tears -- as Pope John Paul II appeared at the window of his residence and delivered the traditional Easter blessing by making the sign of the cross.

A microphone was set up for the 84-year-old pope, who is still recovering from an emergency tracheotomy. He tried to speak, but the words did not come.

His silence filled the square with emotion.

''There was a sadness in everyone. You could feel it," said Maureen Neary, 50, a Boston native now living in New York who came with her husband and 9-year-old son.

She compared her visit this year with one two years ago when she came to Rome for Palm Sunday and the pope delivered an Easter message that spoke powerfully of the Vatican's opposition to the Iraq war. This time, she said: ''We were not here for his words, but to support him. Today was hard for him, I am sure, but the crowd was jubilant, at least outwardly jubilant."

For the first time since his papacy began in 1978, the pope did not lead the Easter Sunday Mass. This year, John Paul missed participating in all of the major Holy Week events, including the theatrical re-creation of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, which he had made a somber tradition since the beginning of his papacy. His absence was taken by Vatican observers as a strong indication of the seriousness of his condition.

At his window, the pope appeared visibly frustrated that he could not address the crowd, which was larger than usual, as spectators expressed an eagerness to see the pope, many fearing it may be his last Easter.

His effort to speak and his avowed commitment to fulfill, until his death, his spiritual role as the father of the Roman Catholic Church was greeted with a wave of emotion and applause.

Chanting rose up from the crowd in Italian -- ''Long live the pope!" -- and in English -- ''John Paul II, we love you!"

There seemed to be a perceptible shift in the crowd, a sense expressed by many that they had always relied on the pope for his message and that now he needed to hear from them.

''I am cheering as loud as I can so he can hear us and know how much we love him," said Alexandra Soltys, 21, of Poland, the pope's native country.

She is a member of one of several international Catholic youth movements that have been dear to the pope throughout his papacy. She brushed away a tear as she spoke, adding that she was one of hundreds of Polish young people who had made the pilgrimage to St. Peter's Square hoping that their exuberance and youth might help energize the ailing pope as he endures what many fear is the final stage of a long struggle with Parkinson's disease.

In many ways, John Paul's 26-year papacy has changed the institution of the Vatican, as the pope has reached out to the world through the media and extensive travel.

The Easter Mass was carried live on television in more than 70 countries and broadcast to every corner of the world on Vatican Radio.

John Paul coughed briefly when he first appeared at his window yesterday, but remained there for more than 10 minutes and looked better than he has since his release from the hospital last month, his second emergency hospitalization to treat breathing difficulties.

He has had two recent hospitalizations to treat respiratory crises linked to advanced stages of the pope's particular strain of Parkinson's, which generally attacks the body's motor skills.

On Feb. 24, surgeons inserted a tube in John Paul's throat to help him breathe, and since then he has uttered few words. The last time the pope spoke publicly was March 13.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who presided over Easter Mass, read a message written by the pope in which he said people were hungering for ''truth, freedom, justice, and peace."

John Paul also asked God to give to us ''the strength to show generous solidarity toward the multitudes who are even today suffering and dying from poverty and hunger, decimated by fatal epidemics, or devastated by immense natural disasters."

A prayer was said during the Mass asking ''life and new energies" for the ailing pontiff and the entire Roman Catholic Church.

Neil Doherty, 20, of Cambridge, Mass., was in St. Peter's Square among the crowd of young people waving their national flags -- Polish, Irish, Spanish, Brazilian, Italian, French, American, and others -- and expressing support for the pope in chants that at times made the event sound more like a soccer match than a holy feast.

''I am in awe of him as the pope; he's the only one I've known my whole life. The pope is physically the symbol of the church. His illness is maybe a symbol of illness in the church, and his struggle to persevere is a message to all of us to persevere," said Doherty.

Shortly after the pope was moved away from the window in his wheelchair, Vatican officials closed the white curtains. The crowd seemed to linger, holding on to the moment, reluctant to say goodbye.

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

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