Pope’s health tempers Easter celebrations

Deacon Daniel Chavez performs the “Veneration of the Cross” at Mass Friday at San Jose Mission Catholic Church in Texico. Catholics celebrate the ressurection of Jesus Christ on Easter. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Correspondent

Pope John Paul II will be on the hearts and minds of area Catholics today as they celebrate Easter.

Due to health complications stemming from Parkinson’s disease and a recent tracheotomy, the normal Easter duties of the 84-year-old pope have been delegated to top churchmen. It is the first time in 26 years that the pope has been absent from the most important season on the Christian calendar.

“When one of our family members hurts, we all hurt,” said Father Sotero Sena of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.

The pope, Sena said, is the heart of the Catholic Church. “We do feel that he is the head of the Church. His illness affects all of us.”

Sena expressed concern over the pope’s age — but ultimately, he said, matters concerning the pope’s health and recovery rest in the hands of God.

The pontiff traditionally has used the Easter Sunday message to reflect on war, poverty and terrorism. He also has delivered an annual Easter greeting in some 60 languages to the delight of the thousands of tourists and faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican said John Paul this year was expected only to give a blessing. It was not clear if he would utter any words or just silently bless the crowd as he did on Palm Sunday.

John Paul last spoke to the faithful March 13, shortly before he was released from a Rome hospital for the second time in a month.

Manuela Torres, a long-standing member of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and her family always attend Easter Sunday services. Her thoughts on the pope’s health stand in stark contrast to her eager descriptions of today’s ceremonies.

“We always pick 12 members of the church to play the 12 disciples. We recreate the Lord’s Supper and washing of Jesus’ feet,” Torres said.

Torres said the parish will set aside extra time today to pray for the ailing pope. “We are sad. It is a sad situation.”

Dr. Glenn McCoy, professor emeritus of religion at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, said the pope’s role in the Catholic church is much different than leaders of other Christian religions.

“Catholics view the pope as Christ’s chief representative on Earth,” McCoy said. “It goes back to biblical times and Saint Peter, leader of the Apostles. Catholics recognized Peter as being the first pope.”

McCoy said the Catholic church likely won’t change much with the passing of John Paul.

“Of course it would have a temporary impact and there would be a deep sense of loss,” McCoy said. “In many respects, it would be a personal loss because of his status.”

In Portales, more than 900 members of St. Helen Community Catholic Church will congregate to celebrate Easter.

The church’s pastor, Father Tobin Hitt, said the long and respected service of John Paul heightens the church’s awareness of the need for good leaders.

“Our prayer is that the pope would be completely recovered, but God’s got his own timetable and a plan for everything,” said Hitt, who balances two important roles in the Catholic community — in addition to his service in the ministry, which began eight years ago, he is a member of Eastern New Mexico University’s religion department.

The Davalos family is one among the hundreds of families who celebrate Easter at St. Helen. Lucero Davalos said her family, rather than dwelling on the pope’s illness, will focus on the traditions that accompany this celebrated season. On Good Friday, Davalos said the family refrains from eating meat and alters their routines.

“We show that even though we have all the luxuries, such as running water, we do not need to use them,” Davalos said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.