Bearing aloft their intravenous bags, patients in the University Hospital chapel celebrated an emotional Easter mass today, dedicated to Brazilian President-elect Tancredo Neves, who remained in intensive care at the heart clinic nearby.

Sao Paulo's archbishop, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, linked hands around the altar with the wife and family of Neves in prayers for his health.

Repeated countless times during Holy Week in packed churches across this intensely Catholic nation of 130 million people, such expressions of faith are linking Neves' illness with the Passion of Christ.

"Only a miracle can resurrect him now," said the president's brother, Jorge Almeida Neves, on Thursday after the fifth operation. The president-elect suffered his first crisis March 15, just as he was to take office, and has yet to recover sufficiently to do so. Yet Neves, 75, survived the latest crisis, earning the title "man of iron" from his doctors on Good Friday.

The extraordinary popular mobilization in support of Neves is being described by priests and politicians alike as imbuing the new administration with moral authority as it exposes a strong mystical element in the national psyche.

Any reservations about Neves' semidemocratic, indirect election in January by an electoral college seem long forgotten.

"Your prayers have reached up to God, and he has comforted us," the president's wife Risoletta Neves told the nation from the altar. "I ask each of you to continue praying, because if it were not for your prayers, we would not have the force God has given us."

"Tancredo is on the road to recovery," she affirmed. Thanks to the prayers of "our wonderful Brazilians, our brothers who have become involved with great emotion and have given us prayers from the bottom of their hearts."

In an Easter message, Arns wrote that "the most loved president in Brazil's history will have to repay this love when he eventually takes office."

Church leaders linked to liberation theology movements also have stressed a mystical significance of Neves' illness. "There is a redeeming element in the president's suffering. He suffers the pain of all of us who fight for a new Brazil," said Frei Betto, a Dominican caring for Sao Paulo's poor.

Lay commentators have compared the four surgical scars on Neves' abdomen to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus and have described the medical battle against Neves' bacterial infection as a ritual purgation of the body politic after two decades of military rule. It was Neves who negotiated the handover of power this January.

Outside the hospital, followers of macumba -- the cult widely popular in Brazil that came with African slaves centuries ago -- set up altars for Neves.

Above them floated a huge banner telling the president's wife, "You are not alone: 130 million Brazilians are praying with you."

"Faith is giving him energy, and faith and hope are the sisters of courage," said Ulysses Guimares, president of the coalition government's leading party.

Neves had made no special political use of religion prior to his illness, but his links with the church are considerable. In Sao Joao del Rei, his 18th century hometown, he had led the Good Friday church procession for 35 years.

Messianic religious leaders have had a turbulent effect on politics in Brazil's past, but the outpouring for Neves may be the first instance of popular religious forces mobilized for national unity. In Neves' prolonged absence, the new administration led by Vice President Jose Sarney finds itself without any effective opposition.