VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict lamented the widespread abandonment of faith in the West on Holy Thursday before he washed and dried the feet of 12 men to mark Christ's gesture of humility to his apostles on the night before he died.
The German-born pontiff said it sometimes seemed as if people in Western countries had grown bored of their own history and culture and the heartlands of Christianity were rejecting religion.
But he hailed strong examples of the faithful, such as his predecessor John Paul, whose beatification on May 1 is expected to attract hundreds of thousands to Rome and is seen by many in the Church as a chance to rejuvenate the institution.
"Have not we -- the people of God -- become to a large extent a people of unbelief and distance from God?" Pope Benedict said during a service in St. Peter's Basilica in which he blessed oils to be used in Catholic rites.
"Is it perhaps the case that the West, the heartlands of Christianity, are tired of their faith?"
He later poured water over the right feet of 12 men sitting on raised platforms and dried them. That ritual was held in the Basilica of St John's in Lateran, the Pope's cathedral in his capacity as bishop of Rome, while donations were collected for victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Both services were to mark Christ's founding of the priesthood at the Last Supper on the night before he died.
Celebrating the sixth Easter season of his pontificate, the pope said the beatification of his Polish predecessor, John Paul II, would be a chance to remember a man of great faith.
"For all the shame we feel over our failings, we must not forget that today too there are radiant examples of faith, people who give hope to the world," Pope Benedict said.
The 84-year-old pope has often warned against creeping secularism which he has said is as bad as religious fanaticism.
One of the main themes of his papacy has been what the Church calls the "re-evangelization" of Europe, an attempt to urge people to return to their religious roots despite living in highly secularized societies.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics has had a difficult struggle to rebuild the image of the Church after a scandal over the sexual abuse of children by priests reported in several countries.
Many in the Church establishment hope the beatification, bestowing on John Paul the title "blessed," will reinvigorate the institution and encourage people to return to the faith.
It is set to be the biggest event in Rome since the death of the charismatic and highly popular pope in 2005, when millions came to view his body or attend his funeral.
Vatican officials expect at least 300,000 people -- including tens of thousands from his native Poland -- to come
to the Italian capital for the three days of events celebrating his last step before sainthood.
On Good Friday, Pope Benedict will preside at services in the Vatican and then lead a traditional torch-lit Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, around the ruins of Rome's ancient Colosseum.
Italian television will air a question and answer session with the pope on Friday, in which he will respond to queries sent in from people all over the world.
A Vatican newspaper published one of his answers on Thursday, in which he tells a mother who's son has been in a vegetative state for several years that his soul is still in his body and he can still feel the presence of love.
Holy Week services at the Vatican culminate on Easter Sunday, the most important day in the liturgical calendar, when the pope delivers his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)