Vatican City, Oct. 16-(RNS) Pope John Paul II, 81 years old and in failing health, Tuesday (Oct. 16) marked the 23rd anniversary of his election to what has become one of the longest pontificates in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Congratulating the pope on behalf of 247 bishops from throughout the world meeting at the Vatican, Cardinal Bernard Agre, archbishop of Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, wished him "multos et faustissimos annos" (many and most happy years) to come.

The Polish-born John Paul, chosen by the College of Cardinals on Oct. 16, 1978, as the 263rd successor to St. Peter and the first non-Italian pope in 41/2 centuries, now ranks seventh in longevity of service. Agre praised the pope, who has traveled the equivalent of 28 times around the world or almost three times to the moon, as a "pilgrim of hope and artificer of dialogue and peace."

No mention was made of his age and infirmities, but within the church concern is growing over what might happen if the once athletic John Paul were incapacitated by the neurological disease that already has made it difficult for him to move and to speak clearly.

Over the last two millenniums, papacies have ended only with death or on extremely rare occasions with resignations. The last pope to abdicate was Celestine V, who left the throne of St. Peter in 1294, was pronounced a saint by the church but consigned to the inferno by Dante Alighieri in the "Divine Comedy."

John Paul, in his Apostolic Constitution on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff issued in 1996, revised the procedure for the Conclave that will elect his successor. "There are, however, no canonical procedures for deposing an impaired, mentally deranged, senile, comatose or, even worse, a manifestly unworthy pope," Monsignor Charles Burns, a Scottish Vatican scholar, pointed out in a recent study of the election process.

Despite signs of weakness and fatigue, especially during his trips outside Italy, John Paul has remained mentally alert and fully capable of dealing with the unexpected. He has ad-libbed and joked and even sang songs from his Polish childhood during a meeting with young Ukrainians in Lviv in June. Since January 1979, less than three months after his election, the pope has made 95 trips outside Italy, visiting 193 countries, and his aides have said he has no intention of stopping his travels.

John Paul is expected to visit Belarus, Bulgaria and Moldavia in May, return to Poland in June and preside over World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto, Canada, in July. A trip to Moscow is a major goal blocked so far by strains between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy.

Although he is said to use an electric cart to traverse the long marble halls of the Apostolic Palace, the pope keeps to a demanding schedule of audiences six days a week. The Vatican said he has met with more than 1,330 political leaders, and on Aug. 1 he held his 1,000th weekly general audience.

The pope also meets regularly with members of the Roman Curia, the church's central administrative bodies, and personally approves all important Vatican documents and key appointments. He has regularly attended the twice-daily sessions of the monthlong Synod of Bishops now meeting at the Vatican to discuss the role of bishops in the 21st century.

In addition, John Paul has asserted his authority over the church's Magisterium, or teaching, by publishing 13 encyclicals, 12 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 41 apostolic letters and 25 "motu proprio," another form of message to the entire church. And he has proclaimed a record 1,272 new blesseds and 452 new saints for veneration by Roman Catholics. On Sunday (Oct. 21), he will for the first time beatify a husband and wife in a ceremony honoring the role of the family within the church.

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