Pope John Paul II, wearing ordinary black clerical robes over his white papal vestments, heard confessions from 30 Easter visitors in St. Peter's Basilica today before bearing a wooden cross through the ruins of ancient Rome in commemoration of Good Friday.
Popes have heard confessions in the past, but none are believed to have done it in St. Peter's with a concealed identity.
Vatican sources said the pontiff walked, apparently unnoticed, into the crowded central aisle of the huge basilica and went into a confessional normally used by Polish priests and received confessions for nearly two hours, the sources said.
Vatican officials said they were not told of his plan in advance.
The pontiff took the action to emphasize the importance of the sacrament, said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Romeo Panciroli.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, a record number of pilgrims and tourists poured into the city for the emotional high point of Holy Week, in which Christians carried wooden crosses to retrace the footsteps of Jesus Christ to his crucifixion.
The convergence this year of the Jewish Passover holiday with Easter Orthodox Christians together to watch cross bearers climb the narrow-stepped Via Dolorosa. They stopped at each of the 14 Stations of the Cross for prayer and meditation, to commemorate where Christ halted on his route to martyrdom.
The only friction occurred when two pistol shots rang out in Temple Mount, only yards from the procession in the heart of the old city. Police said angry Arab youths emerging from noon prayers in the golden-domed Omar Mosque confronted a group of about 20 Israeli tourists.
The Israelis had climbed a wall to get a better view and the Arabs thought they were trying to invade Temple Mount, a spokesman said. He said one of the Israelis fired the shots, but there were no injuries or arrests.