VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II celebrated the 23rd anniversary of his election by going to work as usual.
Arriving for the morning session of the Synod of Bishops on Oct. 16, he was greeted with sustained applause by the cardinals and bishops. One monsignor on hand called out: “Twenty-three, twenty-three!” John Paul is now the seventh-longest reigning Pope in the history of the Church, including St. Peter.
For his part the Pope acknowledged the applause with a simple wave.
“Sia lodato Gesù Cristo (Praised be Jesus Christ),” John Paul saluted the bishops, the pious Italian greeting he uses at almost all of his public events. The custom was evocative, though — those were his first words upon appearing on the balcony of St. Peter's in the evening of his election Oct. 16, 1978.
At the end of the morning prayers that begin the Synod's day, the assembly sang Oremus Pro Pontifice (Let us pray for the Pope), a traditional Latin hymn.
“Planet Earth has many faces and innumerable cultures which make up your parish,” said Cardinal Bernard Agre of the Ivory Coast, speaking on behalf of the Synod. “Above all you have been a pilgrim of hope, an artist of dialogue and of peace, and you have invited all your contemporaries to experience God.
“After the Jubilee of 2000, instead of looking back in retrospect, your prophetic words come back to us: Duc in altum!” [“Set out into the deep!”]
There were other minor departures from the Synod routine. Longtime papal secretary Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who does not usually accompany the Pope in the Synod Hall, slipped in a back door to hear Agre's tribute to John Paul, leaving just as unobtrusively afterwards. At the end of the morning session, the bishops sang the Italian song “best wishes to you” — the local equivalent of “Happy Birthday” and sung to the same tune. The African bishops, who had hatched their own plan over breakfast, then broke into a rousing chorus of “For He's A Jolly Good Fellow,” led by a delegate from Zambia.
For his part, the Holy Father teased the bishops that they were early — it was not until the evening that he had been elected.
The rest of the papal anniversary week — following the election on Oct. 16, the pontificate was formally “inaugurated” on Oct. 22 — was marked by four major public ceremonies, including the Wednesday audience, a Friday afternoon Mass for the students of Rome's pontifical universities, a Saturday evening prayer vigil for Italian families which drew 100,000 to St. Peter's Square, and then Sunday's beatification Mass of Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi.
The Holy Father continued to “age into the future” as one of his biographers has put it, making the necessary concessions to his physical decline but doing as much as possible. On Oct. 19, he spoke extemporaneously in an unusually clear voice to the students at the end of his homily, recalling fondly his years as archbishop of Krakow, when he would celebrate Mass for the beginning of the academic year there, a tradition he brought with him to Rome.
During the Sunday beatification, he delivered his homily using the newest papal adaptation — a sort of “lap-desk” which is placed across his chair to hold his papers during the homily.