Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Pope John Paul II will kick off a marathon week of festivities today celebrating his 25th year in office amid concerns that his failing health will soon render him unfit to govern the 1billion-member Catholic Church.

During his general audience yesterday , his voice was strong — albeit with some difficulty in pronouncing several words — as he thanked thousands of supporters in St. Peter’s Square for their prayers.

Thousands of people are expected to attend today’s silver anniversary Mass at St. Peter’s at 6 p.m., approximately the same hour that Cardinal Karol Jozef Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, was elected on Oct. 16, 1978.

A dark-horse candidate, he was elected to the papacy on the eighth ballot. Cardinal Jean Villot, then-chamberlain of the conclave, approached him and asked, in Latin, “In accordance with canon law, do you accept?”

The Polish cardinal replied, “It is God’s will. I accept.”

He was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Only three other popes (St. Peter, Pope Pius IX and Pope Leo XIII) in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church have served for 25 years or longer.

Celebrations will last through the weekend, including a beatification Mass for Mother Teresa on Sunday followed by a ceremony on Tuesday to elevate 30 archbishops to the post of cardinal.

A White House delegation of 15 conservative Catholic personalities left last night for Rome from Andrews Air Force Base. It is being led by Columba Bush, wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and includes Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson; National Review Washington editor Kate O’Beirne; U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican James R. Nicholson; Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives; lecturer Mary Ellen Bork, Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon; Covenant House president Sister Mary Rose McGeady; columnist Peggy Noonan; and John Klink, former adviser to the Vatican at the United Nations.

There is some speculation as to how well the 83-year-old pope will weather the marathon of festivities.

“He can barely stand,” said Raymond Flynn, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration who is part of the delegation. “This whole week will be arduous. This could be the most hectic week in his pontificate.”

The pontiff, whose obvious ill health came to a head during his recent trip to Slovakia, where he failed to complete his arrival remarks for the first time in 102 trips. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which has no cure, in 2001. He has battled significant health problems for the past decade, including an appendectomy in 1996, hip-replacement surgery in 1994 and a dislocated shoulder in 1993.

“We realize he’s hurting and frail, and we pray he will get through the very exhausting celebrations of the next two weeks,” said Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is in Rome for the celebrations. “But no one has spoken of any imminent danger” of the pope dying.

Already being termed John Paul the Great by some observers, he has been characterized by Time magazine — which elected him its Man of the Year in 1994 — as one whose worldwide appearances “generate an electricity unmatched by anyone else on Earth.”

“He’s one of the most remarkable people of our generation and a courageous revolutionary,” Mr. Flynn said. “So many people admired him because he was so vibrant and athletic. When I traveled with him to Denver in 1993, there was this youthfulness.

“But I’ve seen his health deteriorate over the years. After he slipped in his bathtub in the Vatican and broke his hip in 1994, he was never the same after that. When you get someone like [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger saying he’s ill, you know it’s true. Usually the Vatican says the pope is in excellent health until the day he dies.”

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