VATICAN CITY — With 2004 marking the start of his 26th year as pope, the big question for Pope John Paul II is how long can he remain the leader of the Catholic Church? To this unspoken question he has responded in many different ways, but his answers all seem to say, “As long as it takes.”
The 83-year-old pontiff’s stubborn commitment to his mission despite his ailing health is both awe-inspiring and uncomfortable to watch. Some days his attempts to communicate are so frustrated by Parkinson’s disease that people listening to him empathize with pinched and pained facial expressions. On the worst of those days he turns over most of his speeches to assistants who read them out loud while standing next to his throne.
On better days the pope can speak clearly if slowly, and he’s able to use tone of voice to emphasize his points. But, these moments are a far cry from the charismatic and authoritative orations which captivated a world audience twenty years ago.
So far the calendar for 2004 is probably the least eventful since John Paul’s election in 1978. There are no big appointments like the twenty-fifth anniversary of his papal election last October.
At the time, he combined that event with a consistory to create new cardinals, allowing him to fill the College of Cardinals that will elect his successor.
Nor are there any candidates for sainthood with the kind of popularity that Mother Teresa inspired with her beatification last year that attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square.John Paul's historic papacy
The pope’s trademark travels are for the first time very uncertain.
There are no big trips on the horizon and the few invitations Vatican spokesman Navarro Valls claims the pope is considering are all to countries he has visited before: Austria, France, Switzerland and Mexico.
Typically the Vatican advance team for papal trips would be in full swing at this stage of the year since most trips are planned for spring and summer months, but this year there are no signs of busy preparations.
The pope’s advisors know how much he loves and wants to travel, but they are too worried about the sudden shifts in his condition to make long-term predictions, and they don’t want to be caught making plans that might have to be publicly cancelled.
One more record
The tone for John Paul’s 2004 seems very low-key but that doesn’t mean he is lowering his moral voice at all. He began with a fervent call for peace in a world still torn by war during his New Year’s Day prayer. A year ago he made a valiant effort to avert the conflict in Iraq and his efforts to create a more peaceful world will continue.
Meantime, he can break one more record in March.
Although there are no celebrations planned, the record will once again highlight the impact of his longevity on church history as John Paul will surpass a 19th century pontiff to become the third-longest serving pope of all time.
With the fact that the number one slot is held by Christ’s apostle, Peter, John Paul’s position among “regular popes” becomes that of “runner up.”
That’s certainly earned him a special place among the 263 “successors of Peter” in the past two thousand years.
Stephen Weeke covers the Vatican for NBC News.