It may only be a footnote in reference books and the Vatican has not planned any celebration or festivity, but Pope John Paul II has reached another milestone in his papacy.
John Paul, who marked the 25th anniversary of his election as pope on Oct. 16, surpasses Pope Leo XIII today to become the third-longest serving pontiff in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican lists St. Peter, the first pope, as serving from 30 to 64 or 67, for a total of 34 or 37 years. Next is Pius IX, 31 years, serving seven months and 17 days. until Feb. 7, 1878.
"It's a beautiful thing because it's a gift of our Lord," said Cardinal Paul Poupard, a Frenchman who has worked alongside the pontiff at the Vatican for several decades.
It seems even more remarkable in light of the crippling ailments that have led some to suggest it might be time for John Paul to consider stepping down, a move John Paul made clear he had no intention of doing. He has Parkinson's disease and knee and hip ailments that make it difficult for him to walk or stand, cause slurred and halting speech and drain his energy.
Nonetheless, the 83-year-old John Paul appears stronger now than during grueling anniversary celebrations in October.
Vatican officials have cut back on some appearances but have also indicated he may resume international travel this spring with a trip to Switzerland. The most-traveled pope in history, John Paul has made 102 foreign trips.
A full Easter season schedule is planned and a second visit to Rome's central synagogue may be in the works, a gesture that would further underline his efforts to improve relations between Catholics and Jews.
But even for an institution where life at the top often begins when prelates reach their 60s, some have begun to ask whether term limits should be imposed for future popes.
One of the Vatican's most powerful officials, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, gave an indication of the thinking in an interview last month with an Italian religious affairs magazine.
Asked if future popes may be elected to a fixed term, he said, ``The pope is selected for life because he is a father and his paternity comes before his role. Perhaps in the future, with life being prolonged, one also would consider new norms but it doesn't seem to me to be a current issue.''
It is not only the pope among top officials who is up in years.
Both the German-born Ratzinger and the Vatican's secretary of state, the Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, are 76 and the subject of frequent retirement rumors.
Ratzinger said he has submitted his resignation various times "but the decision is up to the Holy Father."
The approaching milestone has been a time of tribute for the Polish-born pope, a fierce anti-communist who helped end Soviet rule across eastern Europe.
During a visit to the Vatican on March 6, German President Johannes Rau presented the pope with a white-stone replica of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate and praised the pontiff's role in encouraging a unified Germany and Europe. "Otherwise, the path would have been much longer," Rau said.
On Friday, Rome's Jewish community announced it has formally invited John Paul to return to Rome's central synagogue in May for ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of its construction.
"We know that the invitation is under study and the answer won't arrive before the end of the month," Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said.
"We hope he can come," Jewish leader Leone Paserman told Vatican Radio.
John Paul became the first pope to visit a synagogue when he went to the monumental building facing the Tiber River in 1986 and referred to Jews as "our elder brothers."
The pope made an official visit to Israel in 2000, a few years after the Vatican and the Jewish state agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations.
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