Thousands help pope mark 25th anniversary

At Mass, he makes clear his intention to continue

October 17, 2003|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II, the third-longest-serving pontiff in modern times, marked his 25th anniversary in power yesterday with an open-air Mass before the full hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world.

In radiant golden vestments, his head tilted stiffly, the 83-year-old pope thanked God and his followers for sustaining his remarkable tenure as leader of the church through a tumultuous quarter-century of change and conflict.

And, as dusk fell on St. Peter's Square, he prayed for strength to continue, making it clear that he intended to do so despite concerns about his health. Many who gathered here yesterday thought they might be saying goodbye.

"Christ, knowing of my human frailty, encourages me to respond with faith, like St. Peter ... and he invites me to take on the responsibilities that he has given me," the pope said in reading his homily, which began in a strong voice that tapered off as the night wore on.

The emotional ceremony was bittersweet: Celebration was sobered by the evidence of Pope John Paul's physical decline, which was in stark contrast to the youthful robustness of the Polish cardinal who took over the papacy in 1978. While the audience cheered, applauded and waved banners, many were also moved to tears.

Pope John Paul, who now slumps in a chair and must be wheeled onto the stage, is widely considered one of the most influential religious figures of modern history. He has transformed the papacy, evangelizing across the width and breadth of the planet. He has fought for human rights, spoken out against war and helped bring down communism.

He also centralized Vatican power and enforced a conservative church doctrine, one that many Catholics feel is out of touch with today's society and lifestyles.

As in most of his recent appearances, the pope, who has Parkinson's disease, arthritis and other ailments, was unable to deliver his entire sermon. He read the first and last parts, leaving the midsection to an aide, Monsignor Leonardo Sardi. His usually bright eyes seemed puffy; he was clearly moved at times, especially during an admiring speech from German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of his closest associates.

"I feel joy and sadness when I see him," said Maria Teresa Tarrantino, an Italian homemaker who was among the 50,000 or so people crowding into St. Peter's Square yesterday - and who was present 25 years ago on the evening that white smoke drifted from the Sistine Chapel to signify the selection of a new pope.

"We were so proud of him, then and now," said Tarrantino, 67. "This is why I came here. I don't know if God will take him away, or give him the strength to remain here with us. This could be the last time we can see him."

That was a sentiment expressed repeatedly in the crowd, which had contingents of faithful from Belarus and Brazil to the pope's native Poland and the United States.

"It's sad to say, but that's how we feel," said Debbie Kennedy of Summit, N.J., who was in Rome to celebrate her wedding anniversary with her husband, Tim, and then decided to attend yesterday's Mass. They both said that even though the pope could not finish his speech, his message gets across.

"It's just his presence," Tim Kennedy said.

In modern history, only two other popes served longer: Pope Pius IX, who served 31 1/2 years until Feb. 7, 1878; and Pope Leo XIII, who served nearly 25 1/2 years until July 20, 1903. St. Peter, the first pope, served the longest of all, at least 34 years, in the first years after the death of Jesus Christ just under 2,000 years ago.

Earlier yesterday, Pope John Paul issued a major document decrying the gulf between rich and poor, reminding clerics they are to work to defend the weak and disenfranchised, and condemning the exploitation of religion for violent political ends.

The 192-page document sprang from a meeting of bishops two years ago and was seen as a road map for the church in the coming years.

In it, the pope also ordered bishops to intervene "in a timely manner" to stop abuse or misdeeds by priests in their dioceses. This was a reference to the sexual-misconduct scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in the United States.

"In cases of grave lapses, and even more of crimes which do damage to the very witness of the Gospel, especially when they involve the church's ministers, the bishop must be firm and decisive, just and impartial," the pope wrote in the exhortation, which he signed earlier yesterday during a session with the cardinals.

Events are not usually scheduled at night for the ailing pope, but yesterday's Mass was timed to coincide with the exact hour 25 years ago that his selection as the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years was announced.

In the Mass, he recalled the emotions of that day.

"How could I, humanly speaking, not tremble?" he said. "How could such a huge responsibility not weigh on me?"

In the end, he recalled, he gave his brother cardinals his response: "I accept."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Longest-serving popes

...................Number of years served....Tenure

St. Peter...34 or 37 years...30 to 64 or 67* Pope Pius IX...31 years, seven months, 22 days...1846 to 1878

Pope Leo XIII...25 years, four months, 17 days...878 to 1903

Pope John Paul II...25 years...1978 to present

* exact date unknown

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