Image: Pope Waves During Sunday Blessing In St Peter's Square
Pope John Paul II waves during his Sunday blessing at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sunday.
The Associated Press
updated 10/12/2003 1:53:42 PM ET 2003-10-12T17:53:42

Cheered on by thousands of pilgrims, a fragile Pope John Paul II on Sunday launched a week of celebration and ceremony to mark his 25th anniversary as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

InsertArt(2039362)BENT BY age and ailment, the 83-year old pope thanked the crowds for their support throughout his long pontificate, especially the young.

“I would like to thank them for always being near to me during these years and I would like them to know that I carry on counting on them,” he said, speaking from his window high above St. Peter’s Square for his regular Sunday address.

“You are the future of the world, you are the hope of the church, you are my hope,” he added, repeating a sentence from his first Sunday Angelus, a quarter of a century ago.

The pope, who suffers Parkinson’s disease and can no longer walk, appeared alert during the brief appearance, but as in recent weeks he had to pause regularly for breath and his heavy sighs echoed eerily around the column-ringed piazza.

At one point he twisted away for a violent sneeze and the crowd broke into spontaneous applause as he battled to muster his energy and push ahead with his speech.

Worries about the pope’s health have overshadowed the build up to the anniversary, with top cardinals admitting he was doing poorly and some suggesting he was approaching death.

However, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano said on Friday the pope was still firmly in charge of the 1 billion-member church and Vatican officials say there are no plans to scale back his hectic schedule this month.

CARDINALS INVITED

The pope marks his anniversary on Thursday and has invited all the world’s 195 cardinals to the Vatican to join in the celebrations, giving them a rare opportunity to meet and no doubt discuss what will happen when he finally goes.

The pope will address the scarlet-clad princes of his church on the morning of Oct. 16 and will then preside over a Mass which is expected to draw thousands of faithful.

“I would like immediately to thank all those who want to join me, with their prayers, offering thanks to God for his continued and providential help,” the pope said Sunday.

The Vatican hosts a classical concert in his honor on Friday and two days later hundreds of thousands of Catholics are expected to descend on Rome for the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India’s revered “Saint of the Gutters.”

Events wrap up on Oct. 21 with a ceremony to install 30 new cardinals, who were unexpectedly nominated by the pope last month in a move seen as his last chance to put his stamp on the group that will one day elect a successor.

John Paul is the fourth longest-serving pope in Roman Catholic history and has left his mark on his times as few others have.

On the world stage he has been at once a champion of the poor and an often contested defender of Catholic orthodoxy. He is credited with playing a key role in the downfall of communism and has worked tirelessly to improve inter-religious ties.

Recently, the man once called “God’s Athlete” has appeared a shadow of his former self. Unable to walk, he has to be wheeled around on platforms and his body often trembles out of control.

But Sodano, who is number two in the church hierarchy to the pope, told Reuters that John Paul remained an active force.

“Even at 83 years of age, he can still do much. History is full of old men who made enormous contributions to the progress of civilization.”

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