e was a spirit of celebration tinged with a sense of foreboding yesterday within the columned confines of St. Peter's Square.
They were all here. The Costa Rican pilgrims in T-shirts and baseball caps. The young nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa. The hordes of Polish Catholics with their red-and-white flags here to venerate their own Karol Wojtyla, the Polish cardinal who 25 years ago today became the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.
The Pope appeared yesterday at his regular weekly audience, which served as a dress rehearsal for this evening's outdoor mass where cardinals, bishops, politicians and pilgrims from around the world will commemorate the quarter-century of his pontificate.
"It's a moment of joy but it's also a melancholy moment," one Italian bishop said. "It's like a family that gets together to support an ailing grandfather."
But as tens of thousands of the Catholic faithful gather here for a week of masses and special events, there is also the swirl of controversy.
The faithful who jammed into the square yesterday saw the Pope in relatively good form, considering the toll that Parkinson's disease has taken on his health and the fact that in recent weeks, he has sometimes had trouble speaking at all.
His voice yesterday was strong but he had trouble at times uttering his words and his breathing was laboured. He allowed aides to finish some of his statements but he remained at the audience for more than an hour. "I thank you from my heart for being here today and during all these 25 years," John Paul said to the large crowd of Poles in his native language.
"I am happy I can count on your spiritual support."
Some leading Catholics, however, expressed criticism. John Paul's outright rejection of any change on sensitive issues such as celibacy for priests, the ordination of women and the use of contraceptives prompted a prolonged critique yesterday from Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, a leading Catholic liberal who was banned from teaching theology in 1979.
In an interview with the leading Italian daily, Corriere della Serra, Prof. Kueng said that John Paul's years as pope will be seen as a "disaster" for the church that has seen the faithful turn away from a "rigid and centralized system with a river of prescriptions and bans that kill any vital signs within the Church."
He compared the church under the Pope to a prison ship full of children who must only "pray, obey, pay and suffer."
He also accused John Paul of betraying the second Vatican council of the early 1960s and backtracking on its advances, replacing collegiality within the church structure with a Medieval-style absolutism
The theologian noted that in many European countries, half of all parishes will soon be without priests or deacons because of the failure of the church to attract young people to its seminaries. He said it was no solution to fill their ranks with priests imported from Poland, African and India.
Yet the Pope has gone too far for the likes of traditionalists such as The Society of Saint Pius X, the group founded by the renegade French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who stick to the Latin mass and other church practices as they were before 1962.
Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, stirred controversy over HIV/AIDS when he declared that the virus can be spread even if condoms are used. "Relying on condoms is like betting on your own death," the cardinal told Reuters News Agency in an interview, saying that even if condoms reduce the risk of spreading AIDS by 90 per cent, the fact that there remains a risk of 10 or 15 per cent "is like playing Russian roulette."
The Vatican opposes the use of all artificial forms of contraception, including condoms, so the cardinal's advice for avoiding AIDS is to stick to one partner within marriage. But he was quick to add that his opposition to the use of condoms was "beyond the moral aspect."
The World Health Organization condemned the cardinal's view, insisting that while condoms do occasionally break, they do cut the risk of HIV infection by 90 per cent.
"I deplore that comment the way it was received," said Godfried Danneels, a Belgian cardinal who said Cardinal Trujillo had ventured into areas he shouldn't have. "It does not befit a cardinal to deal with the virtue of a product . . . I don't know if what he said is reliable."
Most of those who've come to Rome, however, are just here to celebrate with the Pope.
They've come in such numbers that there's no room at any inn or hostel. Visiting nuns of the Missionaries of Charity have turned to the Italian Civil Defence Forces for emergency tents, which usually house victims of earthquakes and other disasters.
They've set up camp in the courtyard of the order's modest Rome headquarters in a working-class neighbourhood where the only other signs of the upcoming event is a banner praising Mother Teresa over the gate and a freshly paved alleyway.
Then again, five-star hotels are not the norm in the slums of Calcutta where Mother Teresa made her name, caring for the poor.