Pope to mark new milestone
Pope John Paul II passes a new milestone on Sunday, officially becoming the third longest-reigning pontiff in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, according to the Vatican.
The Pope, who is due to turn 84 in May, will overhaul the reign of Leo XIII by serving for 9,281 days since his election on October 1978, more than a quarter of a century ago.
The occasion will pass without any of the pomp and ceremony with which the Vatican celebrated the 25th anniversary of his pontificate last October, but it illustrates the remarkable resilience of John Paul II, who appeared to have been written off even by some of his most senior cardinals only last year.
"John Paul II calmly accepts his age and his health problems," French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said.
"Now he's rediscovered the form he had before the tragedy of last October's consistory, when he wasn't able even to pronounce the names of the new cardinals."
The pontiff still has some way to go to overhaul the second longest reign - Leo XIII's predecessor, Pius IX, who served more than 31 years between June 1846 and February 1878.
The record goes to Simon Peter of Galilee, the first of Jesus' apostles, to whom He personally entrusted the wellbeing of the Church before the crucifixion. Historians are divided over whether Peter served 34 or 37 years as the first Pope, and some even doubt that he existed at all.
In that case - not one contemplated by the Vatican which houses what Christians believe is Peter's tomb - John Paul II's would be the second longest pontificate.
The fact that John Paul II has lived to reach such a milestone has astonished Vatican watchers who marvel at his repeated ability to rally despite his debilitating Parkinson's disease.
Only six months ago, in the run-up to the October celebration at the Vatican, senior cardinals appeared to be preparing the Catholic faithful for the Pope's demise.
At the time, he appeared particularly weak due to the treatment for his illness. The Parkinson's disease which he has suffered for more than a decade has left him almost immobile, short of breath, and at times, even unable to speak.
Some cardinals, like the Belgian Godfried Danneels, suggested future Popes would abdicate before their deaths.