VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II appeared in relatively good form at his general audience yesterday, thanking the faithful for their support and prayers on the eve of the 25th anniversary of his papacy.
The 83-year-old pope spoke in a strong voice but had difficulty at times uttering his words -- symptoms of Parkinson's disease that have become more pronounced in recent weeks and fueled unprecedented public discussion among cardinals about what to do if he were to become incapacitated.
Nevertheless, there was a festive air in St. Peter's Square during the audience and among cardinals who have gathered in Rome for an anniversary Mass at 6 p.m. today -- about the same hour that then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland was elected the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
Pilgrims waved Poland's red and white flag and sang Polish songs, and he responded by addressing them in their native tongue.
"I thank you from my heart for being here today and during all these 25 years," he said. "I am happy I can count on your spiritual support."
Later, in Italian, he invited Romans and pilgrims to join him at today's Mass "to praise the Lord and thank him for this happy event."
Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend, and official congratulations have been pouring in all week from around the world. Yesterday, a message came from the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, and from the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, who praised the pope for his sacrifice and prayed that God "strengthens you in your service."
Relations between the Vatican and the Russian church have been strained over Moscow's contention that the Roman Catholic Church is poaching for adherents on traditionally Orthodox territory. The tensions have prevented John Paul from fulfilling one of the aims of his papacy -- a trip to Russia.
Italians in particular have been awaiting the anniversary, snapping up special edition newspapers and magazines.