Papacy: 1995-2000

Barb Fraze. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement. Editor: Polly Vedder. Gale, 2000.

Eighteenth Pontifical Year

In the eighteenth year of John Paul’s pontificate, beginning 28 October 1995, he presided over a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Lebanon and continued to be an active international traveler. Despite several bouts of fever and an increasingly noticeable hand tremor, in 1996 John Paul visited Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Venezuela 5-11 February, Tunisia 14 April, Slovenia 17 May, Germany 21-23 June, Hungary 6-7 September, and France 19-22 September. He preached a message of reconciliation in Latin America. In Tunisia, he appealed for tolerance across Muslim North Africa. In Slovenia and Hungary, he spoke of the new emptiness settling over post-communist Europe and urged patience when dealing with the current difficulties. To Germans, he encouraged a spiritual renewal to parallel the economic and political renewal of the reunited country. In France, he marked milestones of the country’s evangelization. At the special assembly for Lebanon in November-December 1995, convened after seventeen years of Lebanon’s civil conflict, the pontiff told citizens to forgive and forget the wounds of war. Much of the synod’s focus was on relations with other churches, and for the first time Muslims were among a synod assembly’s fraternal delegates.

John Paul continued to speak out on world issues. When addressing Vatican diplomats in January 1996, he urged a total ban on nuclear testing, and when the test-ban treaty was approved in September, the Vatican was among the first to sign it. In April, before an international conference on updating a conventional weapons convention, John Paul called for a global ban on anti-personnel land mines. In June, just before an international housing conference, he criticized the economic inequities that lead to the rapid growth of urban slums and said the “right to a house and the right to honest work are part of a plan of social harmony that should provide a dignified life for everyone, without discrimination.”

In February, John Paul issued a sixty-five-page apostolic constitution, Universi dominici gregis, updating the rules for a conclave electing a new pope. Among changes, the document allows the cardinals, after thirty-three ballots, to drop the two-thirds majority needed to elect a pope and opt for a fifty percent majority plus one.

On 8 October 1996, doctors removed John Paul’s appendix, confirming that the inflammation had produced recurring symptoms of fever and nausea. Doctors ruled out the presence of other pathogens and said that within three days of the surgery, the seventy-six-year-old pontiff was eating solids, walking, and meeting with aides. Within three weeks of the surgery, John Paul sent a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, giving the church’s blessing to the theory of evolution, and saying it must be recognized as “more than a hypothesis.”

Nineteenth Pontifical Year

On 3 December 1996, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the formal establishment of the Chinese Catholic hierarchy, John Paul sent a message to Chinese Catholics via a Vatican Radio broadcast. He urged restoration of “visible unity among all” Chinese Catholics and full communion with Rome. Although he did not mention the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which spurns Vatican ties, he said bishops must lead their faithful “in full freedom and with independence from any local authority.”

The same month, he met at the Vatican with His Grace George R. Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Although the two pledged to continue to support Catholic-Anglican dialogue, they wrote in a joint declaration of “the obstacle to reconciliation caused by the ordination of women as priests and bishops in some provinces of the Anglican communion” and said “it may be opportune at this stage in our journey to consult further about how the relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church is to progress.” In June 1997, John Paul sought a first-ever meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow, but Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople reacted by boycotting the European Ecumenical Assembly that was to follow, and Alexei canceled the meeting with the pope. Bartholomew later broke a twenty-year tradition by announcing that he would not send a delegation to the Vatican for the papal Mass marking the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul.

In a visit to war-shattered Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 12-13 April, John Paul appealed to the majority Muslims and minority Croats and Serbs to find forgiveness in their hearts and heal the wounds left by interethnic fighting. “Never again war! Never again hatred and intolerance!” was his cry upon his arrival and departure from the city. Shortly before his arrival, police discovered and deactivated twenty-three mines and a radio-controlled detonator under a bridge along the papal motorcade route, prompting increased security. The pope took a similar message of reconciliation to Lebanon 10-11 May and presented his apostolic exhortation Une esperance nouvelle pour le Liban, formally closing the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Lebanon.

In visits to the Czech Republic 25-27 April and to Poland 31 May-10 June, John Paul cited St. Adalbert as a model for faith, church-state cooperation, and Christian unity throughout Central Europe. He mentioned the saint in a meeting in Poland with the presidents of Germany and six formerly communist Central European states, a meeting that included discussion of including former Warsaw Pact members in the international community. John Paul traveled to France 21-24 August for World Youth Day and the beatification of Frederic Ozanam, founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. In Brazil 2-5 October, John Paul promoted social justice, highlighting the imbalances between the country’s rich and poor, and rallied Catholics to defend and strengthen family bonds.

Twentieth Pontifical Year

John Paul celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his election as pope with an emotional Mass of thanksgiving in which he asked whether he had done all he could to lead the church well. He spoke to 70,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square 18 October 1998: “After twenty years of service on Peter’s chair, I cannot help but ask myself some questions today…. Have you been a diligent and vigilant teacher of the faith in the church? Have you tried to bring the great work of the Second Vatican Council closer to the people of today? Have you tried to satisfy the expectations of the church’s faithful, and also the hunger for truth that is felt in the world outside the church?” The Mass capped a week of celebration that included best wishes from international leaders and ordinary Catholics, special concerts, media specials, and a series of books on the papacy. It also capped a year that saw the pope continue his international travels, name new cardinals, write an encyclical and two apostolic letters and preside over two synods of bishops despite an advancing neurological disorder that affected his posture, speech and movements.

On 15 October, the pope released his encyclical Fides et ratio, in which he warned that a growing separation between modern thought and the “ultimate truths” of religion was leading people to despair and to ethical confusion. The document called for a renewed harmony between theology and philosophy: John Paul asked the church’s theologians to recover the “metaphysical dimension of truth” in their work and to help return the truths of the faith to Catholics’ moral lives. He asked intellectuals to rise above the current vision of life and allow transcendent truths to guide them. The previous summer, the pope issued two apostolic letters: Apostolos suos, on the authority of bishops’ conferences, and Dies Domini, on the religious observance of Sunday.

The special assemblies of the Synod of Bishops for America, 16 November-12 December 1997, and for Asia, 19 April-14 May 1998, were part of a series of regional synods John Paul convened in Rome to revitalize Catholic identity worldwide and to prepare for the new millennium. He presided over the general meetings of the assemblies. In the end he told delegates from the Americas that the synod was “a new point of departure” for evangelization of their continents. Opening the Asian synod, John Paul announced that he had invited two Chinese bishops to attend; the Chinese government did not permit the bishops to travel to Rome, and John Paul expressed his disappointment at the end of the synod.

Visiting four cities in Cuba 21-25 January 1998, John Paul defended the church’s right to take the gospel to all areas of social life and said spiritual renewal was the answer to Cuba’s problems. He appealed for the release of political prisoners, consoled the sick, and urged young people not to leave the island. Many church and international leaders hoped the papal visit would open opportunities for the island-nation’s Catholics, and as rain began to fall on the last day of his visit, John Paul remarked that perhaps it signaled a new beginning for Cuba. John Paul also visited Nigeria 21-23 March, Austria 19-21 June, and Croatia 2-4 October.

In January 1998, John Paul named twenty-two new cardinals, including two in pectore (i.e., he did not reveal their names). He waived the limit on the number of cardinals under age eighty and for a brief time allowed more than 120 cardinal-electors eligible to vote. Among North Americans named were Archbishops Francis E. George of Chicago, Aloysius M. Ambrozic of Toronto, Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City and J. Francis Stafford, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Twenty-First Pontifical Year

John Paul focused on the approaching millennium, beginning 29 November 1998, when he formally proclaimed 2000 a holy year in a papal bull, Incarnationis mysterium. In the document, he introduced the ideas of global solidarity and churchwide soul-searching, focusing on repentance and forgiveness, in addition to maintaining the spiritual aspects of holy years, such as indulgences. The bull was accompanied by an appendix explaining how the faithful could obtain indulgences during the holy year, which was to run from 24 December 1999 to 6 January 2001. From encouraging Roman officials to complete their 2000-related construction projects to urging Lenten penitence and conversion to prepare for the jubilee as well as Easter, the pope kept the focus on the holy year.

He presided over the last two special assemblies of the Synod of Bishops before the holy year—for Oceania in December 1998 and Europe in October 1999—and officially closed the 1997 Synod of Bishops for America by issuing his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America in Mexico City during a 22-26 January visit. To spread Christ’s message, John Paul said in the exhortation, individuals must be awakened to conversion and societies must be led to justice. He appealed for protection of human life in all its forms and for defense against modern evils such as abortion and the death penalty. In a 27 January stop in St. Louis, John Paul met with the governor of Missouri and obtained clemency for a convicted murderer scheduled to be executed that day.

Other papal travels highlighted various aspects of his pontificate. After twenty years of promoting Christian unity, John Paul made his first visit to a predominantly Orthodox nation, Romania, 7-9 May. Romanian Orthodox patriarch Teoctist, who invited the pope, attended Catholic Masses, and John Paul attended Orthodox liturgies, but neither received Communion from the other. One Vatican official said the level of Teoctist’s and John Paul’s joint activity was unprecedented. John Paul said at one Mass, “I am here among you pushed only by the desire for authentic unity.” He also acknowledged how much minority Catholics had suffered for their religious beliefs, especially under communism, but added that their well-tested faith in Christ must give them the strength to overcome their differences with the Orthodox and work with them to spread the faith.

From 5-17 June John Paul made his longest visit to his homeland, touching twenty-one cities in sixteen dioceses. It was a visit of memories, including a stop in his hometown of Wadowice, where he spoke of childhood friends and the cream-filled pastries he used to eat. But in mid-visit, John Paul fell and cut his head, needing three stitches, and days later a fever and bout of the flu forced him to cancel appearances at a Mass attended by more than a million people in his former archdiocese of Kraków and at a nearby prayer service. It was the first time in more than twenty years of papal travel that he had canceled a full day’s activities because of illness. The pope also canceled a short trip to Armenia to visit Catholicos Karekin, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who died of cancer a few days later.

On a one-day visit to Slovenia in September, John Paul urged ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia to replace nationalism with love of country and culture that does not rely on hatred of others. Slovenia was John Paul’s eighty-eighth trip outside the Vatican since the beginning of his pontificate.

Twenty-Second Pontifical Year

In the twentysecond year of John Paul’s pontificate, he ushered the church into the new millennium, an event for which he had felt destined since his election as pope. He opened the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 Christmas Eve 1999, when, walking unsteadily and wavering, he pushed open the holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica. After it opened, he knelt in prayer. Among the first to follow him in were lay people from various continents, a symbol of the church’s global nature.

The 24 December ceremony was the beginning of a sometimes continuous stream of activity for John Paul. He opened the holy doors at Rome’s other three major basilicas, and, opening the door to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he was helped by George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, England, and Orthodox metropolitan Athanasios of Helioupolis and Theira, a representative of the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate.

In a Jubilee Lenten Mass, the pope sought forgiveness for the past and present sins of Christians, including sins against Christian unity and against society’s weakest members, the use of violence in serving the truth, hostility toward Jews and members of other religions, and the marginalization of women in the church. Weeks later, at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, John Paul placed in a crack a signed piece of paper with a reading from his repentance liturgy, asking God to forgive the actions of all those who have “caused these children of yours to suffer.”

The Holy Land visit was a dream come true for the pope, who for years had expressed his desire to visit the sites of major biblical events during the Jubilee year. When Iraqi authorities said security concerns and a continuing Western embargo made it impossible for the pope to visit the country, John Paul remained at the Vatican and took a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer to the ruins of Ur, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham. The following day he left for a 24-26 February trip to Egypt, where he prayed at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the most sacred place in Judaism, came in late March, during a trip to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. John Paul visited holy sites of the Old and New Testaments, walking in the footsteps of John the Baptist in Jordan and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, traveling to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher to Manger Square in Bethlehem, where the Muslim call to prayer briefly interrupted the end of a papal Mass.

At each stage of the pilgrimage, John Paul reached out to other religious leaders. In Egypt he visited Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians. The pope said it was only right that the successor of St. Peter should visit the successor of St. Mark the Evangelist, who is held by tradition to have evangelized Egypt before being killed for the faith there. Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi greeted John Paul at the Cairo airport and later announced he planned to visit the Vatican the following fall to participate in Catholic-Muslim dialogue sessions. In Jerusalem, a city sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike, John Paul called Christian disputes over the holy sites “scandalous” and urged a new spirit of harmony among Christian leaders. The same day that the pope visited the chief rabbinate and Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and met with the Israeli president, John Paul also met with members of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Druze, and Bahai faiths.

Throughout the holy year, John Paul presided over many smaller Jubilee celebrations dedicated to different members of the church. In May, he combined his eightieth birthday celebration with the Jubilee for Priests, concelebrating a Mass with some 8,000 priests in St. Peter’s Square. On the Jubilee for Workers, he called for a resolution to labor inequality and injustice throughout the world. He met with artists and journalists, police and children, deacons, scientists, and the sick. Closing the Forty-Seventh International Eucharistic Congress at the Vatican, he linked the Eucharistic and the worldwide mission of proclaiming the gospel.

In May, he traveled to Fatima, Portugal, to beatify two of the shepherd children to whom Mary appeared in 1917. On the nineteenth anniversary of his assassination attempt, he had the Vatican secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, announce that he believed the so-called Third Secret of Fatima referred to the attempt on his life and the twentieth-century struggles against communism. The Vatican later published the secret.

As numbers of cardinals dwindled, Vatican officials looked for John Paul to name new members of the college. And in a year that saw trips to India, Georgia, and the Holy Land, John Paul was making plans for a visit in 2001 to Oceania, to officially close its special assembly. At eighty, an age when most Vatican officials are forced to retire, John Paul continued a hectic schedule. Slowed by age and a neurological disorder, he sometimes appeared more frail than ever, but many in Rome were impressed by his resilient spirit and steadfast manner.