Pope leads faithful into joy of Easter


ROME -- Pope John Paul II ended the period of Christian mourning with an Easter vigil service last night, the climax of three days of religious observance in which the pope sought greater involvement for women in the church and for Christians outside the Roman Catholic fold.

On Good Friday evening, the pope made an impassioned plea for Christian unity after praying through the Way of the Cross, Christ's path to crucifixion, with meditations composed by a Protestant nun.

"At this hour the people of God throughout the world gather together to keep watch," the pope said in a sermon prepared for delivery at the vigil service in St. Peter's Basilica.

"And while they keep watch with their Lord, light begins to shine in the darkness."

The darkened church was gradually brought to light, bells rang, the organ sounded, and candles were lighted to celebrate the mystery that is at the core of Christian belief: Christ's resurrection.

The service last evening was the highlight of Holy Week ceremonies, which moved the church from a period of mourning over Christ's death to the Easter season of celebration.

On Holy Thursday, following the example of Jesus in the Gospel, the pope washed the feet of 12 priests.

Then on Good Friday, breaking with tradition, he enlisted the help of lay people, including several women, to carry a cross through the flood-lighted ruins of the Colosseum.

It was there, according to legend, that early Christians were put to death for their beliefs.

"Let us seek to continue the inheritance they have left us," the pope told a crowd of several thousand huddled under umbrellas as freezing rain fell.

In recent weeks, the pope has been at pains to define more closely the role of women in the church.

Thursday, he issued a pastoral letter to priests around the world, titled "The Dignity of Women," imploring them to re-examine their attitudes toward women, which he said should be modeled on those toward a mother or sister.

The Vatican has been criticized for its attitude toward women, and the criticism has been renewed recently.

Five months before an international conference on women opens in Beijing, the Holy See has been accused of maneuvering to silence its critics by asking the United Nations to deny them credentials to attend the meeting.

Among the organizations that have accused the Vatican of such behavior are religious groups of Catholics who question the Vatican's condemnation of abortion in all circumstances.

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