March 2004 will be a noteworthy month in many respects for the Holy Father, but by far the most remarkable day will be the 17th, for that is when Pope John Paul II's pontificate becomes the third longest in history at 25 years, five months and one day, surpassing Pope Leo XIII, whose reign was 25 years and five months.
Only two of the Church's 264 popes will have reigned longer: St. Peter (more than 30 years but precise dates are unknown) and Blessed Pius IX, whose pontificate lasted 31 years, seven months and 17 days.
The month will start on a quiet note as the Pope and ranking members of the Roman Curia will be on their annual retreat in the Vatican's Redemptoris Mater Chapel.
The preacher for this year's spiritual exercises on the theme “Following You, Light of Life,” is Msgr. Bruno Forte, who is a member of both the International Theological Commission and the Pontifical Theological Academy. All papal audiences, including the Wednesday general audience, are suspended during the weeklong retreat, which was set to begin Feb. 29.
The final meditation will take place the morning of March 6, following which John Paul will immediately resume a full schedule of activities. At 11 a.m. he will welcome Germany's president Johannes Rau to the Vatican.
At 6 p.m. that same day in the Paul VI Hall, the Holy Father will welcome the pastors and faithful of three Roman parishes: Sts. Bridget, Hilary and Maximus, a momentous occasion for Romans as the Pope's customary parish visits had not been on the papal calendar for two years.
Ad Limina Visits
The ad limina apostolorum visits that bishops are obliged to make every five years to the Apostolic See will bring prelates from Holland, Australia and the United States to Rome in March.
Such visits are meticulously planned well in advance of the prelates’ arrival in Rome, where they have individual and group meetings with the Holy Father and also meet with officials from the Roman Curia's nine congregations, 11 pontifical councils and any other curial offices that needs dictate.
An important moment for the bishops is their group meeting with the Pope, who, in his speech to them in their own language, addresses issues of great, even critical importance, to them and the Church in their country — and often matters of urgency for the universal Church.
Ad limina apostolorum means “to the threshold of the apostles.” As prescribed in Canons 399 and 400 of the Code of Canon Law, the world's bishops come to Rome every five years to show their communion with the Apostolic See and to strengthen both their responsibility as successors of the apostles and the hierarchical communion with the Successor of Peter, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.
On March 12 there will be the first of several scheduled Friday Lenten sermons by the preacher of the papal household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, at 9.a.m. in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the presence of the Holy Father and members of the Roman Curia.
Members of both the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Pontifical Council for Culture are scheduled to hold their plenary assemblies in March. The former will meet from March 8-12 and will reflect on the conciliar decree Inter Mirifica (On the Instruments of Social Communications) 40 years after its promulgation.
The council for culture will meet March 11-13 to discuss the challenges presented in society today by non-belief and religious indifference. Each assembly is scheduled to have a private audience with the Pope during its meeting.
On March 11, John Paul will welcome Argentina's foreign minister, Rafael Antonio Bielsa.
Two days later, at 6:30 p.m. in the Paul VI Hall, the Holy Father will pray the rosary with a group of European university students as the culminating moment of their daylong meeting in Rome on the theme “Christ, Hope for Europe.”
This European Day of University Students is being held to mark the May 1 entry of 10 new countries into the European Union. The evening meeting in the Vatican will include television linkup with university students in Prague, Nicosia, Gniezno, Vilnius, Bratislava, Budapest, Valletta and Ljubljana.
March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, is a Vatican holiday.
At 9:30 a.m. on March 21 in St. Peter's Basilica, John Paul will beatify Servants of God Luigi Talamoni, Matilde del Sagrado Corazon Tellez Robles, Piedad de la Cruz Ortiz Real and Maria Candida dell'Eucaristia.
On March 24 the Vatican will host a significant event as a special edition of the International Charlemagne Prize, a prestigious award given annually by the city of Aachen for distinguished service on behalf of European unity, is bestowed on the Pope.
This award, named for the first holy Roman emperor, Charlemagne, who is viewed as a symbol of European unity — given the vast expanse of his realm that included several modern-day European countries — has been given every year since 1950. The committee that announced the award Jan. 22 cited the Pope's “extraordinary contribution to the process of European integration” and his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain that once divided the continent.
Joan Lewis works for Vatican Information Service.