(RNS) Pope John Paul II, celebrating a special Holy Year Mass for the sick, said last week that they must accept the heavy cross of pain and sickness as "part of the mystery of man on earth."

The 79-year-old Roman Catholic pontiff, who himself suffers from a debilitating neurological disease, said he felt an "intimate participation" in the Jubilee of the Sick and Health Care Workers.

"You are in the heart of the successor of Peter, who shares your every worry and anxiety," the pope told 35,000 pilgrims, some 3,000 of them in wheelchairs, who gathered in St. Peter's Square for an outdoor Mass on a cool but sunny morning.

It is important to know how to read the design of God when suffering knocks on your door.

During the Mass, John Paul anointed 10 of the seriously ill, including Kirk Kilgour, 52. A native of Los Angeles, he was a champion volleyball player in the United States and Italy until a riding accident in Rome 24 years ago left him totally paralyzed.

Kilgour brought with him a prayer he wrote for a gathering of the pilgrims with the pope Saturday (February 12) night in the Paul VI Audience Hall. "I asked of God to be strong to carry out grandiose projects, and he made me weak to conserve my humility. I demanded of God that he give me health to realize great tasks: He gave me pain to understand it better," it read in part.

John Paul said he prayed that "this touching celebration" would not only bring "extraordinary physical and spiritual comfort" but also "offer to all, healthy and sick, the opportunity of meditating on the salvational value of suffering.

"Certainly, it is just to struggle against sickness because health is a gift of God," he said. But it is also important to know how to read the design of God when suffering knocks on your door."

Comparing sickness to the cross on which Jesus was crucified, the pope said, "For he who knows how to welcome it in his tested life, illuminated by faith, it becomes a source of hope and of salvation."

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