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VATICAN LETTER Sep-19-2003 (800 words) Backgrounder. xxxi
October should be a busy month in the busiest pontificate in history
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope John Paul II's frailty during a visit to Slovakia prompted some to wonder whether the duties of his office are finally overwhelming the 83-year-old pontiff.
But as a glance at his October schedule shows, the pope is hardly preparing to ride into the sunset.
In fact, the month promises to be one of the busiest periods of any pontificate, a marathon of meetings, liturgies and celebrations -- including festivities for the 25th anniversary of his election.
One Vatican official described the papal schedule as "massacrante," or "grueling," a word Italians use when they're afraid it could wear someone out.
The pope starts off October with a general audience, a two-hour event that brings him into weekly contact with pilgrims from all over the world. Over the years, he's presided over more than 1,100 of these audiences, attended by an estimated 16.8 million people.
The same day, he begins a 12-day series of "ad limina" visits with bishops from the Philippines, one-on-one encounters followed by a group meeting.
On Oct. 2, the pope meets with the president of Lithuania and the Australian foreign minister, and the next day holds a private audience with the Lebanese foreign minister.
On Oct. 4, the pope hosts the Anglican primate, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, at the Vatican for the first time.
He presides over a canonization Mass in St. Peter's Square Oct. 5 to honor three new missionary saints, and the next day meets with thousands of pilgrims who will be in Rome for the event.
Then on Oct. 7, he'll helicopter down to a Marian sanctuary in Pompeii to say Mass and close out the Year of the Rosary. It will be the 144th Italian visit of his pontificate.
The month continues at the same hectic pace, but on Oct. 15 things get even more intense. That's the day the College of Cardinals descends on Rome to help the pope celebrate his 25th anniversary. After signing a post-synodal document on the role of the bishop in the church the morning of Oct. 16, the pope will say Mass in the evening for what is expected to be a huge crowd.
There's a concert in the pope's honor the next day. On Oct. 18 the pope will hold a retrospective gathering with the cardinals and heads of bishops' conferences, then host them for lunch.
On Oct. 19 the pope presides over the beatification of Mother Teresa, a three-hour liturgy in St. Peter's Square that's expected to draw more than 100,000 people. The pope will meet with many of the pilgrims the following day.
Then -- just for good measure -- he'll meet Oct. 21 with members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, to accept their 25th-anniversary congratulations.
The month just keeps rolling along, with more liturgies, audiences with world leaders and "ad limina" meetings with English and Welsh bishops. At the finish line Oct. 31, the pope addresses a large group of European foreign ministers at the Vatican.
Except, of course, it's not the finish line. November will bring more of the same: more meetings, more public Masses, more audience and Angelus talks, along with the daily encounters with his own Vatican curial officials that are essential to running the universal church.
If Pope John Paul has a heavy schedule these days, he shoulders part of the blame. His ambitious papacy has helped change the way popes operate: once remote and regal, the head of the church is now expected to be in a state of perpetual pastoral motion.
It wasn't always that way. From the 1500s to the middle of the 20th century, popes made relatively few public appearances and most of their affairs were conducted behind Vatican walls. A private audience was just that -- there was no pool of reporters craning their necks and no TV cameras to record the pope's every gesture or expression.
In the days before the automobile, dignitaries seeking a papal audience communicated by emissary to the Vatican as they neared Rome. The Vatican, in turn, sent out the "master of the chamber" to work out the time and details of the meeting. Given the logistical demands, the papal library was not a revolving door.
Until recent decades, popes rarely celebrated public liturgies in Rome or at the Vatican, preferring to let cardinals preside.
Church historian Franco Cardini said that changed significantly around the time of the Second Vatican Council, when the pope's ministry became more public. Audiences have multiplied, and media interest has helped make each of them a potentially newsmaking event.
For Pope John Paul, it all adds up to a busy month in what is no doubt the busiest pontificate in history.
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