The Pope´s agenda for the next three years lists trips around the world, as well as the biggest beatification ceremony in history.
His itinerary includes ecumenical trips to Orthodox lands, "world days" in Toronto (2002) and Manila (2003), a synod on bishops, and hoped-for trips to Moscow and Beijing.
From the start of his pontificate, the Holy Father prepared the Church´s transition to the third millennium, which culminated in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the best-attended Holy Year in history. As the end of the Jubilee approached, media speculation rose that the aging Pope would resign.
But John Paul II never hinted about resigning. On his 75th birthday, in May 1995, he said: "I leave to Christ the decision as to how and when he will release me from this service." Nothing in the papal agenda indicates that he has changed his mind.
The Holy Father has appointments up to 2003, when he will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his pontificate, a goal surpassed only by St. Peter, Pius IX and Leo XIII.
Next month, John Paul II will proclaim the largest beatification in history when he raises martyrs of the 1930s Spanish religious persecution to the glory of the altars.
In the near term, however, the Pope´s greatest concern is the promotion of ecumenical dialogue. He is giving priority to fostering relations with the Orthodox Church which, although separated from Rome for 1,000 years, has overcome the original theological differences (regarding the "filioque" clause). The key issue separating Eastern and Western Christianity revolves around papal primacy.
The Pontiff´s forthcoming trips will be decisive for this ecumenism. From May 5-9, after a stopover in Malta, John Paul II plans to visit Damascus, Syria, which is a laboratory "in miniature" of relations among Christians of different confessions, including the Orthodox Church, apostolic Churches, and the Catholic Church of the Oriental rite, and Protestants, all of which are represented there.
The Pope´s trip to Athens, Greece, remains uncertain. Some influential sectors of the Orthodox Church strongly oppose this visit. The Pope´s May 1999 trip to Romania, the first Orthodox country visited by a Bishop of Rome, served to demolish a wall of misunderstanding that existed for a millennium.
In this context, the great challenge will be the Pope´s visit to Ukraine this June. Ukraine is a Russian Orthodox land par excellence. The origins of the Orthodox faith of Mother Russia go back 1,000 years and have their roots in Kiev. The Patriarchate of Moscow is the largest and most influential in the world in terms of numbers of faithful.
On one hand, the Churches of Moscow and Kiev have directly opposed the Pope´s visit to Ukraine. On the other hand, ZENIT learned this week from Vatican sources that the work of the Commission of Orthodox and Catholics, created in Ukraine to come to an agreement that will end the tensions between the Orthodox and Greek-Catholics, a key problem between the Moscow Patriarchate and Rome, is making good progress.
Since the time of Mikhail Gorbachev, the law has restored to Eastern-rite Catholics (the same as the Orthodox) some of the property given to the Orthodox Church, which was expropriated by the Stalin regime.
While it would be difficult for the Orthodox Church to lose these properties (parish churches and houses where their married priests live), this same problem has been resolved through dialogue in other countries, such as Romania and, more recently, Slovakia. Moreover, a possible Moscow trip may hinge on the outcome of the Pope´s trip to Ukraine.
However, the Pontiff´s objectives are not limited to the ecumenical dialogue, which is also making progress with Protestant communities, as reflected in the historic 1999 Augsburg agreement on grace between Catholics and Lutherans.
This year´s Feb. 21 consistory will show that the Pope continues to guide the Church firmly. His choice of 44 new cardinals in a sense overcomes the marked divisions within the Church which characterized the 1980s -- with the phenomenon of liberation theology -- and the 1990s -- with various archbishops´ proposals for the Church´s internal reform. In the forthcoming consistory, not only will a great number of countries be represented, but also many different ecclesiastical sensitivities.
In this vein, the Holy Father this October will preside over a synod on the very figure of the bishop. It will be a decisive event in understanding how the Church will move forward in the coming years. In the near future, the Pope may be soon making changes in the Roman Curia; Vatican observers note that some cardinals in key posts have reached retirement age.
Then, John Paul II plans to be at World Youth Day in Toronto in July 2002, and World Family Day in Manila, Philippines, in 2003. He still has his sights set on a trip to Beijing -- yet another sign that he´s not planning to stop working any time soon.