The pope, from his apartment, watched Holy Thursday services in St. Peter's Basilica on television as a cardinal read a message to the faithful on his behalf in an early evening service recalling the Last Supper of Christ.
"With mind and heart I am close to you," the pontiff said in the Holy Thursday message.
Meanwhile, the obviously failing health of Pope John Paul II has given new impetus to the Vatican press corps' favorite preoccupation, compiling lists of possible successors, reports.
On Good Friday, when the Roman Catholic Church marks Jesus' Crucifixion and death, John Paul was expected to use a video connection to participate in the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum.
The Vatican also said the pope would not hear confessions in St. Peter's Basilica on Good Friday — a change from previous years.
Holy Week services had taken on a special significance because of the pontiff's suffering, a top Vatican official, U.S. Archbishop John Foley, said.
"It's very obvious that the pope is carrying a very heavy cross indeed, and he is giving a marvelous example of patience in the face of suffering, and of long suffering which in itself is a virtue," Foley said on Vatican Radio Friday.
"So there's added significance in which the Holy Father is associated with Jesus in the carrying of the cross," said Foley, who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
On Thursday, the faithful in the basilica broke into applause when the pope's message being read aloud concluded this way: "Spiritually present, I pray with you, while with affection I bless all of you."
Recent medical crises that led to a breathing tube being surgically inserted into his throat a month ago have taken their toll of the 84-year-old pope, already worn down by years of battling Parkinson's disease.
The church "lives, thanks to the pope, with the pope, but it can also live even if the pope has a less visible and spectacular presence," Paris Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois told RTL radio.
However, John Paul must show himself publicly, even in sickness, because it "is part of his service, to be available for the Christian people and humanity," the French capital's new archbishop said.
Susanna Cardenas, an officer from the Ecuadorian Embassy to the Holy See who attended the Thursday evening service, said "you could feel his presence, but you could sense he wasn't there."
Luigi Santo, a seminarian, noted that "when the pope is present there is a whole other spirituality."
John Paul, who also suffers from knee and hip ailments, stopped carrying the cross at the ancient site several years ago. However, he had continued to preside over the torch-lit evening service, reading prayers to the crowd.
"It's certainly a great sacrifice for him not to be with his people as in all these years in a physical and direct way, but in a certain sense, he will be (present) in an even more powerful way," Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola said of the pope's absence for Good Friday.
"This is the great mystery of the authority of the church," said Scola in comments for an Italian TV program.
Although the Vatican has taken pains to describe the ailing pontiff as solidly at the helm of the church, his failure for the first time in his 26-year papacy to preside at these important Holy Week events was a reminder to the world's 1.1 billion Catholics of the limits posed by his physical problems.
"What's important in my mind is to see that the Church functions," Vingt-Trois said. "Nothing has stopped" even if the pope takes a less visible role, he said.
Holy Week culminates on Easter Sunday, when the pope is expected to bless the crowds. The Vatican said Friday that TV networks in 74 countries will be linked by satellite for the ceremony.
John Paul chose his guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to compose this year's meditations to be read aloud during the Good Friday procession.
In the meditations, whose text was available on the Vatican Web site, Ratzinger denounces immorality, including "filth" in the Church, "even among those ... in the priesthood," a possible reference to the widespread sexual scandals among clergy.