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 CNS Story:

New traditions: Pope invented his own variety of papal customs

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- If there's anything Pope John Paul II loved more than following traditions, it was inventing new ones.

During his pontificate, the Polish-born pontiff filled his calendar with annual events of every variety: hearing confessions, baptizing babies, visiting Rome parishes or holding youth rallies, to name a few.

That's on top of the traditional papal ceremonies he inherited when elected in 1978. Only when his health and mobility seriously declined in his later years did he cut back -- reluctantly -- on several of these self-styled customs.

In 1980, he instituted the practice of hearing confessions in St. Peter's Basilica on Good Friday, apparently becoming the first pope in history to hear the confessions of ordinary Catholics.

The year before, he began writing an annual Holy Thursday letter to priests of the world, as a sign of his special concern for the priesthood and the burdens of pastoral ministry.

The pope liked to move around, and in 1979 he revived the practice of leading an Ash Wednesday procession on Rome's Aventine Hill, before placing ashes on the foreheads of cardinals, bishops and religious at the Basilica of Santa Sabina. The Lenten season "cannot pass unnoticed," he remarked during the ceremony.

For many years on March 19, feast of St. Joseph, he traveled to an Italian factory or other workplace to highlight church concerns about the world of labor.

"In some of these events and meetings, the pope wanted to be more visible," said one Vatican official, adding that the pope's presence gave events "a sense of a 'happening.'"

The pope also wanted to be seen engaged directly in pastoral action, not sitting behind a desk in his private library.

The events often had a sacramental character. Soon after he was elected, he began ordaining bishops in a lengthy liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica on the feast of the Epiphany. Later, he made an annual tradition of baptizing babies from around the world in a Mass marking the feast of the baptism of the Lord.

World Youth Day, launched by the pope in 1986, has become one of the most popular international celebrations on the church calendar. Every two or three years, Pope John Paul presided over a mega-gathering of young people.

The pope also established the World Day of the Sick Feb. 11, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, for which he prepared an annual message.

In 1997, he instituted a World Day of Consecrated Life, celebrated Feb. 2, feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and celebrated Mass to inaugurate it.

One of Pope John Paul's biggest innovations was his pastoral visits to Rome parishes. Pope Paul VI paid occasional visits to churches in his diocese, but this pope made it systematic, calling on more than 300 parishes. In 2002, when ailing health made such visits too cumbersome, he amended the tradition to have representatives of Rome parishes visit him at the Vatican. It was a natural choice for the Polish pope -- he had visited parishes week after week as archbishop of Krakow and considered it one of the best parts of his job.

For many years, the pope also revived the custom of a Dec. 31 papal visit to a Rome church to offer a year-end "Te Deum" of thanksgiving.

Another tradition Pope John Paul brought to the Vatican was a simple one that resonated with Catholics all over the world: a Christmas tree and a Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square, just below the papal window. Like thousands of others, he visited it during the Christmas season.

Not all the pope's new traditions were publicized, however. On his birthday, he usually invited cardinals in Rome who were over age 80 to a lunch and some open talk about church issues. It was a sign that he appreciated their input, even though he maintained the rule excluding them from a conclave because of their age.

For many years, just after Christmas, the pope often paid a couple of barely noticed visits to two other groups: He met with garbage collectors at a small office near the Vatican and with nuns and homeless people at a shelter operated by Missionaries of Charity in the Vatican.

Small traditions -- but, like the big ones, Pope John Paul made room for them on his calendar.


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