National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Pope John Paul II waves to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square as he arrives for his weekly general audience Oct. 15, the day before his 25th anniversary as pope.
-- CNS/Reuters
Pope marks 25-year pontificate

Conclave speculation thrives during frail pope's silver jubilee


For only the third time in its 2,000-year history, the Roman Catholic church has marked a pope’s silver jubilee. A special Oct. 16 Mass in St. Peter’s Square featuring almost all of the world’s 166 cardinals was the cornerstone of mid-October activities celebrating John Paul II’s 25 years in office.

Officially, the Vatican counts St. Peter as the longest-serving pope, at 35-36 years. For popes for whom dates are more secure, however, only two had previously reached 25 years in office: Pius IX (1846-1878) and Leo XII (1878-1903).

As the anniversary unfolded, the attention of the Catholic world seemed divided between a nostalgic look back over one of the most consequential pontificates in the church’s long history, and a look forward towards the possible implications of John Paul’s increasingly uncertain health.

Inevitably, the gathering of cardinals in Rome also invited speculation about successors to the pope.

While officially the cardinals were not in Rome to examine candidates or talk church politics, such matters nevertheless hung in the air. Cardinals held briefing sessions for reporters in their languages, so that Rome by night had something of the feel of New Hampshire in the weeks leading up to a presidential primary.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, for example, ticked off three mega-issues he sees facing the church during an Oct. 15 session with reporters at the North American College, home to American seminarians in Rome.

He listed uneven growth, with some regions of the Catholic world experiencing dramatic increases, and others facing empty churches; how to offer the celebration of the Eucharist to all Catholics in an era of priest shortages; and how to promote a spirit of “new evangelization.”

More controversial questions were raised by Scotland’s new cardinal, Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh, who told reporters Sept. 29 that he felt the Catholic church should be open to discussion on priestly celibacy and contraception. He also signaled that he had no problem with gay clergy so long as they remain celibate.

In one signal of the tensions surrounding these questions, however, O’Brien on Oct. 7 recited a Profession of Faith in his cathedral, pledging that he would “accept and intend to defend” church law and teaching on precisely the same questions -- celibacy, contraception and homosexuality.

In another sign of the unfinished business that awaits John Paul’s successor, two cardinals clashed in the days leading up to the silver jubilee on the hot-button issue of condoms.

Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who heads the Pontifical Council for the Family, told the BBC in early October that condoms may not be effective in blocking the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS. This reiterated a long-standing position in Lopez Trujillo’s office, which was laid out in a 2003 Lexicon published by the Council for the Family under the heading “safe sex.”

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Belgium, widely considered a leading candidate to succeed John Paul II, rebuked Lopez Trujillo.

“It does not befit a cardinal to deal with the virtue of a product. ... I don’t know if what he said is reliable,” Danneels said, adding that a cardinal should instead raise the ethical, religious and spiritual dimensions of the AIDS issue.

Also on Oct. 16, John Paul II released a 196-page apostolic exhortation concluding the October 2001 Synod of Bishops, on the nature of the bishop’s office. Titled Pastores Gregis, the document is a detailed meditation on the bishop’s role in his diocese and in relation with both his fellow bishops and the Holy See.

The pope’s exhortation to bishops to respond to scandals will be especially meaningful for Americans in light of the recent sexual abuse crisis.

A bishop “is bound to intervene in a timely manner, according to the established canonical norms, for the correction and spiritual good of the sacred minister, for the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice, and all this is required for the protection and assistance of victims,” the pope wrote.

The pope also urged bishops to exercise their proper diocesan authority in harmony with the papacy and the universal church, calling this the proper expression of the concept of communion.

Media coverage of the anniversary was extensive, in part a reflection of John Paul’s massively consequential 25-year reign, and in part an indication of how anxious news organizations are to work the bugs out of plans for coverage of a conclave in which John Paul’s successor will be chosen. The top floor of a parking garage adjacent to the Vatican was occupied by an army of television crews, with perches atop the Urban College overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

The official calendar for the pope’s silver jubilee included a behind-closed-doors symposium for the cardinals evaluating John Paul’s 25-year reign, the release of a new papal document on the bishop’s office, and a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, featuring the famed fourth movement’s Ode to Joy.

Six cardinals were selected to deliver addresses at the symposium. Cardinal Bernard Gantin of Benin spoke on the Petrine ministry and communion in the episcopate; French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger tackled the subject of priests, consecrated life and vocations; Lopez Trujillo handled the family; Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir of Lebanon spoke on ecumenism; Cardinal Ivan Dias of India addressed missions; and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, described the pope as peacemaker. Of the six, only Dias is regarded as a potential papabile, or candidate to be pope.

On Sunday, Oct. 19, John Paul II will beatify Mother Teresa, and on Oct. 21 he will introduce 31 new members in the College of Cardinals, continuing a punishing October schedule for the frail 83-year-old pontiff.

Throughout mid-October, Italian television repeatedly broadcast footage from the beginning of John Paul’s reign 25 years ago. Images of the 58-year-old pontiff of 1978, who took the world stage by storm, contrasted sharply with the John Paul of 2003, incapable of moving under his own power and struggling to finish sentences.

Nevertheless, Vatican officials firmly rejected speculation that John Paul might resign.

“Popes do not retire. They are chosen as servants for life,” Gantin said during his address.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

For more on the pope’s anniversary, a talk with U.S. ambassador to the Vatican James Nicholson, and a report on Archbishop Oscar Romero’s sainthood cause, see John Allen’s column at

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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