VATICAN CITY, May 17 (CNS)--Pope John Paul II turns 80 Thursday, an age that brings mandatory retirement at most Vatican offices but which finds the Polish-born pontiff in one of the busiest years of his life.

The pope is celebrating his May 18 birthday in characteristic fashion, celebrating Mass for several thousand priests in a jubilee ceremony that is certain to evoke memories of his own priestly calling.

Then, in a festive touch, he'll attend a symphonic concert in his honor at the Vatican audience hall, with Gilbert Levine conducting.

The pope's birthday has not loomed large on the Holy Year calendar, mainly because it's so crowded with other activities. The pope is leading more than 75 major liturgies and ceremonies this year, a schedule that has taxed his stamina but highlighted his determination to lead the church into the new millennium.

Like the 50,000 people who attended a general audience in St. Peter's Square May 3, jubilee pilgrims have found the pontiff frail and slow-moving at times, his voice indistinct and his arm shaking--symptoms of the neurological disorder from which he suffers. He now rides a rolling platform down the aisle of St. Peter's Basilica and has little opportunity to mix with the crowds.

But Rome observers have also been impressed with the pope's steadfast manner and his resilient spirit. His grueling weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land barely slowed him down, and he appears to genuinely relish some of the lighter moments of the jubilee ceremonies, especially when children are involved.

Inevitably, the "R" word--resignation--has been heard this year, along with more open discussion of the pope's infirmity. Papal resignation is foreseen by church law, but almost all popes have stayed in office until they died.

In January, German Bishop Karl Lehmann raised the possibility of the pope resigning, and Vatican officials have privately discussed it as an interesting--but unlikely--option. Most Vatican insiders think it's bad taste to even talk about resignation during the jubilee, but few are willing to rule it out in the future.

"I'm convinced that when the time comes, the pope will do what is in the best interests of the church. I don't think he would remain in office if he thought it would hurt the church," said one longtime observer who has watched the pope closely for many years.

French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger recently made headlines when he said the pope was more and more a "prisoner in his body" because of the creeping immobility believed caused by Parkinson's disease.

The age of 80 is significant because that's when cardinals, bishops, and others automatically relinquish membership at Vatican congregations or councils. It is also the age at which cardinals lose the right to participate in a conclave.

Pope John Paul, in a document that maintained this exclusion rule for the over-80 cardinals, said he did not think the burden of choosing a pope should be added to "the weight of such venerable age." That was four years ago.

Now that he's turning 80 himself, many people are wondering whether the pope would, in fact, ever step aside if he felt he was not up to the burden of the papacy.

The pope offered some insight into his views on his 75th birthday, when he said he wanted to "renew before Christ the offering of my willingness to serve the church for as long as he wants, abandoning myself completely to his holy will."

"I leave to him the decision about how and when he will relieve me of this service," he added.

The wording of those remarks has fueled much speculation in recent years, but few clear answers, even from those closest to the pontiff.

The pope has been widely reported to have remarked to his aides that they should not plan his schedule past the year 2000. That ominous-sounding instruction appears to be baseless, however.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope "is very much involved in preparing projects beyond the Holy Year."

"He is constantly thinking about the future, with no time to look back," the spokesman said.

Ecumenical projects will be a papal priority after the jubilee, Navarro-Valls said, and there are tentative plans for a papal visit to Oceania in the first half of 2001, where the pope would unveil his post-synodal document for that region.

Bishops' ad limina visits, suspended for the Holy Year, are set to resume in 2001, with prelates from all over Latin America coming for rounds of talks with the pope. In October 2001, the pope will host a worldwide Synod of Bishops on the role of bishops.

Sometime over the next six months--perhaps as early as June--the pope is expected to name a new batch of cardinals.

Meanwhile, the birthday wishes have been arriving daily at the Vatican. Among the first was one from officers of the Philadelphia-based Papal Foundation and their families. On May 2, they gave the pontiff a few gifts, including a box of chocolates and, from a 5-year-old boy, a photo of his kindergarten class.

Then they sang "Happy Birthday," a song that will be ringing in the pope's ears throughout the month of May.

Copyright (c) 2000 Catholic News Service/U.S. Catholic Conference. The CNS news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed, including but not limited to such means as framing or any other digital copying or distribution method.

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