Thousands of people turned out for the pope's weekly general audience in Rome, the day before he celebrates 25 years as leader of the world's Roman Catholics. Pope John Paul II invited everyone to join him for a special Mass Thursday evening to mark the anniversary.
The pope appeared in relatively good form as he addressed the crowd that gathered in Saint Peter's Square. Just one day before his anniversary, he spoke in a stronger and clearer voice than he has in recent days.
During the audience, he thanked pilgrims for their good wishes and prayers during his quarter century as pope. He invited everyone to take part in an evening Mass Thursday, which will be held at about the same time he first appeared to the world as pope on October 16, 1978.
He was the first non-Italian to be elected in more than 400 years. The pope from Poland was to leave his imprint on the Catholic Church by playing a major role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In later years, he continued to lobby world leaders for peace, while trying to convince Catholics around the world, especially young people, to follow his conservative ideology.
Cardinals and bishops from all over the world, and official delegations from many countries, will attend the special anniversary Mass Thursday. Among them is Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, who considers this a historic moment.
"It is really remarkable to look back at the 25 years and his impact upon the world and the church," said Cardinal Mahoney. He said John Paul has been a deeply spiritual pope and a moral voice for peace in the world.
Many of the cardinals recognize the pope is no longer the man whose youth and energy emanated so visibly in 1978. He suffers from Parkinson's disease and arthritis, and he has trouble walking and speaking.
But Cardinal Mahoney and others insist the pope is still very much in control of the church. "He is a man of great inner strength, and his inner strength and his inner spirit are captured in a body that is weaker," said Cardinal Mahoney. "Yet he is so committed to carry out his role as [Saint] Peter among us, that he just brings all this energy to it."
Cardinal Mahony made clear the pope is still very lucid, and said that when he greeted him at the general audience he clearly recalled his visit to Universal Studios in Hollywood in 1987.
The cardinals arriving in Rome for the celebrations have appeared more willing to discuss the pope's health. They say that despite a clear deterioration in recent months, the pope has shown no signs of wanting to step down, but rather seems determined to continue his mission until the end.
The events of the following days will again test the pope's stamina. After Thursday's anniversary Mass, he will have another major ceremony to preside over on Sunday for the beatification of Mother Teresa. And on Tuesday there will be another lengthy ceremony to install 30 new cardinals.