ROME - This week marks two important dates for Pope Benedict XVI: He turns 85 today and Thursday marks the 7th anniversary of his election as pope, the 265th pope in a long line spanning the centuries from St. Peter onward.
There are no official events planned at the Vatican for the pope today except for a meeting with a delegation of dignitaries from his birthplace, the region of Bavaria in Germany. But his older brother, Georg Ratzinger, flew in from Germany this weekend to be with him for his private celebration. Greetings from all around the world have been flooding into the Vatican for days.
Addressing the crowds at his weekly Sunday blessing, he asked for prayers and for the strength to carry on. "Next Thursday, on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of my election to the Sea of Peter, I ask for your prayers, so that the Lord gives me the strength to fulfill the mission he entrusted to me."
The "birthday gift" the pope is most hoping for this week, however, is good news from the renegade Lefebvrists group, also known as the Society of St Pius X's. The group broke with the Catholic Church when its members opposed the modernizing change after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and the church has been trying to get them back into the fold ever since.
The hope is that this week's news will avoid a final rift; a serious step this pope would have to take. The society has until mid-April to reply to the pope and clarify its position on doctrinal matters it has not accepted if it wants unity and reconciliation with the church.
Pope Benedict XVI is now the oldest pope in the past 109 years and one of only six popes in the past 500 years to reign past the age of 85.
Although the Pope has started using a moving platform up the main aisle of St. Peter's and was seen using a cane in public once as he set off on his recent five-day trip to Mexico and Cuba, there are no signs he suffers from any serious illness. He managed to get through the exhausting Latin-American trip and then preside over all the long Easter Holy Week ceremonies, the busiest time in the church calendar.
And even if at times he can look tired and has become visibly weaker, he hasn't stopped yet. His next foreign trip to Lebanon has been announced for September and he is still expected to attend Catholic World Youth day in Rio de Janeiro in the summer.
The bookish pope is working on the third volume of his bestselling "Jesus of Nazareth" series, this time focusing on Jesus' childhood, and is believed to be working on at least one hefty papal document on the theological virtue of faith.
He also has yet more important church appointments this year. October will be busy as he will lead a gathering of bishops and launch the "Year of Faith" on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, a significant date in the church's history. Also in October, he will make seven new saints; two of them from the United States, Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian and Marianne Cope, who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii.
Some Vatican watchers have said he is no longer in control of the church's daily operations but he was reportedly furious when he learned about what the media dubbed "Vatileaks" and launched an internal "criminal investigation" to find out who has been secretly supplying the Italian media with internal Vatican documents. The documents depicted Vatican City as corrupt, badly managed and brimming with clerical infighting. It's unclear what punishment those responsible will face for tarnishing the Vatican's image through "disloyalty" and "cowardice," although leaks have stopped.
Initially stiff and awkward when he was elected pope, he seems to have relaxed into his role. On his recent trip to Mexico, he came out of his residence unexpectedly to greet a Mariachi band that was serenading him loudly. Smiling while wearing a sombrero, he spoke to the crowd, saying, "Dear friends, muchas gracias for the enthusiasm. I am happy to be with you. I've made many trips but I've never been received with so much enthusiasm. Mexico will always be in my heart. Now I understand," he said, "why Pope John Paul II said 'I feel like a Mexican pope.'"
Benedict still draws large crowds who listen attentively to the carefully prepared speeches he delivers in his soft-spoken gentle manner. His most beloved word "joy," said with a slight German accent, peppers most of his speeches and impromptu addresses.
More than 2.5 million people saw him at public or private papal audiences and liturgical ceremonies at the Vatican or at his residence outside Rome in Castel Gandolfo last year. Millions also participated in public ceremonies during his trips in Italy and around the world.
He is, and by all accounts has always been, a man of quiet routine in private. According to brother Georg Ratzinger, the pope doesn't like to cook but he has been known to wash up after meals and he uses a tape recorder to practice his foreign-language greetings. He dines at 7:30pm and usually watches the evening news at 8 p.m. if he does not have guests for dinner.
Most days, weather permitting, he likes to take a walk in the Vatican gardens. He still has strong ties with his German former theological students who visit him for a week every summer at his residence outside Rome to debate theological matters. Although much talked about in the media, he does not have a cat in the Vatican, although he has a number of ceramic ones on his beloved piano, and his shoes are not made by a fashionable Italian designer.
In public, however, in contrast to the late Pope JPII's Spartan, simple papal style, Benedict has introduced more elaborate papal vestments at ceremonies, some harking back to what was worn by popes in previous centuries. Six high candles now stand on the altar during all papal ceremonies, at his request, to the irritation of photographers and cameramen because it blocks their view of him.
Although the pope's attire can be a throwback to earlier times, he has embraced social networks such as Facebook and YouTube to spread his message. The Vatican is even studying the possibility of launching "Pope tweets."
But the pontiff doesn't seem so convinced of his digital skills. He laughed when a reporter addressed him on the papal plane as a "technological pope," revealing a surprising sense of humor.
Articles surface cyclically debating the possibility of his resignation but the pope seems in no hurry just yet. "Yes I'm old, but I can still carry out my duties," he told a frail former Cuban leader Fidel Castro at their meeting in Havana last month.