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Ailing Pope John Paul II Celebrates 25th Anniversary of Papacy in Rome

By Frank Bruni


With a twilight Mass that drew thousands of people to St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II celebrated his 25th anniversary at the head of the Roman Catholic Church on Thursday night, a milestone at once joyful and somber.

Cardinals and worshippers from all over the world sang sweetly and clapped softly to show their appreciation for the 83-year-old pope and his extraordinary papacy, the fourth-longest in the history of Christianity’s largest denomination.

They also watched a proud leader, his strength sapped by illness and age, struggle to get his words out, his face contorted at times into what resembled a pained grimace.

The pope read only the first and fourth sections of a prepared sermon, handing over the long, middle stretch of the text to a senior Vatican official.

Addressing Jesus Christ, the pope said, “I offer you the fruits of these 25 years of ministry.”

“Forgive any bad done,” the pope said in Italian, “and multiply the good.”

Thursday’s marked yet another indelible moment in the career of one of the most visible, commanding figures of his time.

Although John Paul’s words and actions over several stormy decades drew both acclaim and protest, he always loomed large, and he intersected time and again with important world events.

Some historians say he played an important role in the collapse of Communism in Europe by exhorting fellow Poles and others under the grip of the Soviet Union to reject an ideology that he deemed oppressive.

Thursday night’s ceremony lasted two hours and brimmed with feeling. Many worshippers’ eyes misted as they listened to the pope and to the tributes that he received.

The pope seemed similarly moved. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one of a handful of Vatican officials who still see the pope regularly, delivered a formal speech in praise of him, John Paul’s head hung lower than usual and his eyes narrowed.

Although Parkinson’s disease has robbed the pope of much control over his expressions, it looked as if he was holding back tears.

The scale of pageantry on Thursday night matched the degree of emotion. John Paul sat, in regal golden robes and a tall golden miter, as the sun set and darkness fell on the storied square.

Around him were scores of cardinals from scores of countries, in red caps and pale yellow robes. At his feet were thousands of spectators, including many of Italy’s important politicians and leaders from other countries.

The ceremony began at 6 p.m., almost the same hour when, a quarter-century ago, white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel to indicate the election of a new pope.