VATICAN CITY — “Every day the dialogue between Jesus and Peter takes place in my heart,” said a reflective and prayerful Pope John Paul II on Oct. 16, the 25th anniversary of his election. “In spirit, I fix my gaze on the Risen Christ. He, well aware of my human fragility, encourages me to respond with trust as Peter did: Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you (John 21:17). And then he invites me to assume the responsibilities which he himself has entrusted to me.”
It was a remarkable moment in the long pontificate of John Paul II, for he does not often speak about the intimate things of his own spiritual life. Yet for this historic occasion his homily became a meditative prayer on the blessed burden of the papacy.
“Twenty-five years ago I experienced in a particular way the divine mercy,” he confessed. “In the conclave, through the College of Cardinals, Christ said also to me, as once he said to Peter on the Sea of Gennesaret: Tend my sheep … Humanly speaking, how could I not tremble? How could such a great responsibility not weigh down upon me?”
The Pope returned to St. Peter's Square at the same evening hour at which he first appeared on the balcony in 1978. He came to repeat the words he said upon his election 25 years ago. The voice was labored and the body weak, but the emotion was high among the 50,000 people who packed into the square, joining the Pope and the College of Cardinals for the special anniversary Mass.
“In the obedience of faith before Christ the Lord, abandoning myself to the Mother of Christ and the Church, and conscious of the grave difficulties, I accept,” he said, carefully pronouncing the words with which he accepted his election.
John Paul used a hydraulic throne so that he could remain seated throughout the Mass. As is now customary, he did not read his entire homily himself, leaving another archbishop to read paragraphs which included his famous exhortation of October 1978: “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ!”
In the same section, John Paul summarized his understanding of his mission, saying that “from the beginning of my pontificate, my thoughts, my prayers and my actions have been animated by one desire — to testify that Christ, the Good Shepherd, is present and works in his Church.”
The Pope read the introduction of his homily, and it was continued by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, substitute for general affairs of the Vatican Secretariat of State. But John Paul concluded the homily himself with a heartfelt prayer in which he offered to Jesus Christ “the gift of myself, of the present and of the future, that all may be done according to your will.”
‘Pray for Me’
John Paul thereby indicated — as is his custom on his anniversaries — that he would continue his papal service as long as God desires. Saying that “only God knows how many sacrifices, prayers and sufferings have been offered to sustain me in my service to the Church,” he asked the faithful to continue “in this great act of love for the Successor of Peter.”
At 25 years, John Paul is the fourth-longest serving pope in history, after St. Peter himself, Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878) and Leo XIII (1878-1903).
The evening Mass, which he celebrated under a crystal clear evening sky, closed a day which began with the great bells of St. Peter's greeting the dawn with their most solemn festive tones. In the last few weeks, speculation on the Holy Father's deteriorating health led many to think that the bells would be soon intoning the pro papa agonizante — the somber toll for a pope in his last hours.
In a tribute at the beginning of Mass, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals and John Paul's most important lieutenant for over 20 years, compared him to St. Paul the Apostle, both in terms of his missionary travels and his physical sufferings, which grew more evident as the two-hour Mass went on. Cardinal Ratzinger himself chanted the Preface of the Mass in place of the Holy Father, whose stamina is failing. At the end of the liturgy, John Paul cut short a lengthy setting of the Magnificat and appeared to be in some pain as he left the square.
“In your life the word ‘cross’ is not only a word. You have allowed yourself to be wounded by it in soul and body,” said the German cardinal in his address on behalf the College of Cardinals. “You have taken upon yourself criticisms and insults You have proclaimed the will of God without fear, even in those places where it contradicts what the people think and want.”
Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of how John Paul had not only traveled across the geographic continents, but also “across the continents of the spirit” to be close to those at the margins of society. At the conclusion of his address, the cardinal had a touching exchange with the Holy Father — two old collaborators sharing a moment of joint thanksgiving.
The cardinal concluded his address by adapting an ancient prayer for the pontiff: Dominus conservet te et vivificet te et beat-um tefaciat in terra! — “May the Lord keep you and give you life and make you blessed on the face of the earth!”
Outpouring of Love
Countries from around the world sent delegations to the anniversary Mass. Many of them belonged to the Soviet empire when John Paul was elected and are now independent. Aleksander Kwasniewski, president of Poland, represented the Pope's homeland, along with former Polish President Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader whom John Paul supported in the 1980s.
The American presidential delegation was led by Columba Bush, the wife of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, President George W. Bush's brother. The Florida Bushes are Catholic.
The Pope sat in a spotlight under a canopy, his head tilted forward under a brocaded gold miter. He glanced out at the crown and smiled as visitors waved caps, flags and scarves in tribute.
Some people at Mass were in St. Peter's Square the evening 25 years earlier when the first Polish Pope greeted the world from the balcony of St. Peter's. One of them was Cardinal-elect Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, who worked at the Vatican at the time.
“He was filled with energy, filled with dynamism, and 25 years later it's gone, but he bears the burdens of old age with incredible dignity,” the cardinal told reporters.
One Rome resident, who was only 1 when the Pope was elected, had tears running down her cheeks as she explained her admiration for the Holy Father. “He invites everyone to be Christian, even when it is difficult,” said Cecilia DiCarlo. “He knows how difficult this is for young people, and that is so special, especially from someone his age.”
Father Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.
CNS contributed to this report.