Pope Thanks Followers for Keeping the Faith

Oct 16, 2003 03:49 PM EDT

VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II appeared in relatively good form at his general audience Wednesday, thanking the faithful for their support and prayers on the eve of the 25th anniversary of his papacy.

The 83-year-old pope spoke in a strong voice but had difficulty at times uttering his words -- symptoms of Parkinson's disease that have become more pronounced in recent weeks and fueled unprecedented public discussion among cardinals about what to do if he were to become incapacitated.

Nevertheless, there was a festive air at St. Peter's Square during the audience and among cardinals who have gathered in Rome for an anniversary Mass at 6 tonight -- about the same hour that then-Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

Pilgrims waved Poland's red-and-white flag and sang Polish songs, and he responded by addressing them in their native tongue.

"I thank you from my heart for being here today and during all these 25 years," he said. "I am happy I can count on your spiritual support."

Later, in Italian, he invited Romans and pilgrims to join him at tonight's Mass "to praise the Lord and thank him for this happy event."

Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend, and official congratulations have been pouring in all week from around the world. On Wednesday, a message came from the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, and from the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, who praised the pope for his sacrifice and prayed that God "strengthens you in your service."

Relations between the Vatican and the Russian church have been strained over Moscow's contention that the Roman Catholic Church is poaching for adherents on traditionally Orthodox territory. The tensions have prevented John Paul from fulfilling one of the aims of his papacy -- a trip to Russia.

Italians in particular have been awaiting the anniversary, snapping up special edition newspapers and magazines, such as today's anniversary edition of the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

In another telling indication that Italians have adopted John Paul as their own, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi addressed the nation about the anniversary in a prime-time televised speech Wednesday.

But for all the celebration, there was sadness too, because John Paul is clearly ailing. His problems speaking were apparent Wednesday, and while he managed greetings in several languages, aides read most of his remarks.

Church law has no specific provisions for replacing an incapacitated pope. The latest code of canon law, updated in 1983, said specific laws would be created to deal with the situation -- but they haven't been.

New York Cardinal Edward Egan, who helped draft the 1983 code, said Wednesday he doesn't know why the Vatican never followed up on the provisions, more necessary now because medicine is prolonging lives.

"I would say for any leadership, this is something that's going to have to be addressed," Egan told reporters.

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said John Paul clearly has good days and bad, depending on the combination of medication he's taking, but that he remained in control of the church.

"Now, is he managing all aspects of the church like he used to? Of course not. No one expects him to. But he's being right now what we pray for him to be and that is our shepherd," Mahony told reporters.