Roman Catholic Cardinals from all over the world have started to arrive in Rome to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's papacy. The ailing pontiff, who has been looking increasingly frail and tired, will need all his strength to get him through a very busy week ahead.
Concern has been rising about the pope's health in the days approaching the 25th anniversary of his election. To celebrate the silver jubilee, the pope has invited all cardinals to the Vatican.
The cardinals are seeing the anniversary as a moment to pay tribute to the pope's determination to press ahead, despite his failing health. But some Vatican observers see it more as a rehearsal for the election of his successor.
Thousands of priests, nuns, and pilgrims have been pouring into the city to take part in the celebrations. Many remember the day he was elected in 1978. "His election was an extraordinary thing," recalls Father Paul Robichaud, the head of the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. "Suddenly, out on the podium stands this Polish archbishop who is 58-years-old, this young, bright, alive young pastor about to speak to the universal church."
Father Robichaud says the circumstances surrounding Pope John Paul II's election were a moment of light at a very difficult time for the church, which had experienced the death of two popes in less than two months.
John Paul was the first non-Italian to be elected in more than 450 years. He was, by papal standards, quite young, and he brought a lot of energy and determination to the job.
"To suddenly see the universal pastor of the church as this young, young priest who was moving into so many areas with energy and with vision and with life, really gave the church an incredible boost," said Father Robichaud.
From the very beginning, the pope exercised strength and moral authority. He said to his fellow Poles, battling communist rule, do not be afraid, and his words and support contributed to the end of the Cold War.
The U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Jim Nicholson, says then-President Ronald Reagan sensed an opportunity in this pope to be an intermediary for the western world in its effort to end communism. "No one knew better the effects of living under a totalitarian oppressive government than the pope, as he did in Poland," said Mr. Nicholson.
Pope John Paul lived a difficult childhood, losing both his parents at a young age. He suffered under the Nazi occupation of Poland, and later, as a priest, battled with the anti-church communist government.
"His whole life was a story of struggle," suggets Father Robichaud, "struggle against the forces of darkness, always with a vision of life and light and hope and clarity. And I think that is really what he has brought to the church."
Father Robichaud, like the millions who have been able to see the pope, says one of his great achievements in the past 25 years has been to bring his message around the world personally, particularly to young people.
"He is always been a pope in movement. He decided that he did not expect the world to come to him. He went out to the world. He is probably the most seen pope in the history of the papacy," said Father Robichaud. "Even with his own physical problems that he faces, he still wants to travel, he still wants to go out of the Vatican and bring that message of hope and vision and clarity and light to as many people as he can."
But at the same time, Pope John Paul has been somewhat controversial, holding to his conservative views on many subjects, including his opposition to abortion and birth control in an era when those practices are widespread around the world, even in the Catholic community.
The celebrations for the 25th anniversary begin when a closed-door meeting of all the world's cardinals starts at the Vatican. Top Church officials have said the pope may not look very well, but he is certainly still firmly in charge of the church.
Ambassador Nicholson shares this opinion. "He's now 83, he is frail, he is not in good health, he has Parkinson's disease, he is full of arthritis in his legs, has trouble walking. But his mind is perfect, it is lucid, his sense of humor is intact, he still has a strategic vision."
The pope and the cardinals - nearly all of whom have been appointed under John Paul's rule - are to discuss the role of bishops, relations with other Christian churches and missionary work. But Vatican observers say it will also be an opportunity for cardinals to size one another up for when the time comes to elect the pope's successor.
"They will be big shoes to fill because this pope has an immense moral megaphone and an immense moral magnetism," said Ambassador Nicholson.
The pope will celebrate an anniversary mass Thursday in Saint Peter's Square, the anniversary of the day he was elected in 1978. On Friday there will be a special concert for the pope and on Saturday he will address the cardinals at the end of their meeting. Sunday will see the pope hold a beatification ceremony for Mother Teresa, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people.
The anniversary events will end next Tuesday with a ceremony to install 30 new cardinals, unexpectedly named by the pope last month. Observers say that last event is perhaps the pope's final effort to ensure that those who choose his successor will want to keep the church on the same path he has followed for the past 25 years.