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Knee pain keeps pope seated at Vatican Mass

Plagued by knee pain, Pope John Paul II took the exceptional step of ceding his place at the altar during Palm Sunday Mass, the latest sign of the health problems that are exacting a toll on the once tireless pontiff.

To the surprise of tens of thousands of faithful who turned out on a spring day so cold snowflakes wetted the top of the colonnade around St. Peter's Square, John Paul did not celebrate the Mass. Instead, he sat in an armchair near the altar on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, letting an Italian cardinal take his place.

The pope, who turns 82 in May, read the homily and several prayers during the nearly 2{-hour celebration, but the substitution _ a severe break with tradition _ spared him a long spell standing behind the altar.

Persistent knee pain blamed on arthrosis, a degenerative joint disease, forced the pope to cancel several public appearances recently and abandon, at least temporarily, his cherished tradition of informal Sunday visits to parish churches in Rome.

The Vatican did not publicly explain why Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini gave Mass in the pope's place.

However, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed Vatican official as saying that while the pope's doctors have said that the knee is improving, they have been adamant that he take it easy. John Paul at first balked at the idea of not celebrating the Mass, the official said.

The pope did kneel at one point for several minutes and, helped by aides, stood at the ceremony's end to give his blessing. When it was time to go, the two aides flanking him appeared uncertain about how to help him up.