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Vatican plans year of celebrations for millennium

Holy Land events also in the works to mark 2,000th birthday of Christ

Sunday, July 19, 1998

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Vatican, which is planning to make the millennial year into an extended 2,000th birthday party for Jesus, is relieved that the medieval monk who calculated the calendar from the birth of Christ made a mistake.

"In all probability, the year 1996 should have been the year 2000," said Archbishop John Foley, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

But with concerns about computer failures when the digits roll over to 2000, "it is possibly providential that the four-year mistake was made by Dionysius Exiguus. Because if it hadn't been ... we would really be in a bind. At least we have had four more years to get this straightened out."

Pope John Paul II has called for spiritual celebrations beginning at Christmas 1999 and ending at Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2001. For those who insist that the new millennium doesn't start until 2001, there will be a prayer vigil in Rome on Dec. 31, 2000.

"We won't settle the dispute, we will just mark both," said Foley, who was in Pittsburgh yesterday for activities related to the Catholic Family and retreat center in Bloomingdale, Ohio. The Philadelphia native, who has headed the Vatican's office for electronic media since 1984, gave a news conference at the Airport Marriott in Coraopolis.

Detailed plans have been made for the millennial celebrations in Rome. Plans are also in the works for Holy Land celebrations in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Every Catholic diocese in the world has been asked to make its own celebration plans.

The church doesn't teach that there is special significance to the year 2000. It is being marked as a milestone, something like a golden wedding anniversary. The pope has called on Christians, and all people of good will, to prepare themselves by seeking forgiveness for wrongs they committed against others.

"Ideally, the year 2000 could be a year for world transformation, for peace and reconciliation. And we should aim for the ideal," Foley said.

"The principal focus should be on Nazareth and on Bethlehem, and to a large extent on Rome -- not on Times Square in New York."

The only event formally announced for the Holy Land is a March 25, 2000, celebration in Nazareth, marking the day when Christians believe the angel told Mary she would be the mother of God's son. It is not certain if the pope will attend, Foley said.

Planning for other events in the land of Jesus' birth has been difficult due to political complexities, he said. Nazareth is in Israel, while Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory and Jerusalem's status is a matter of international dispute. However, events are expected to take place in Bethlehem and Jerusalem as well, he said.

In addition to expected celebrations such as Easter, some highlights in Rome will be:

The opening of the "holy door" -- a traditional entrance for pilgrims -- at St. Peter's and most other Roman basilicas on Christmas Eve 1999.

An ecumenical prayer service to open the holy door at St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls on Jan. 18, which begins the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

A special Ash Wednesday service March 8, to ask pardon from God and others.

An ecumenical prayer service at the Colosseum on May 7, commemorating the deaths of modern martyrs for the Christian faith.

A day for Jewish-Christian dialogue on Oct. 3.

The pope will perform wedding ceremonies for several couples in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 15.

No one knows how many pilgrims will visit Rome for these events, Foley said, although he has seen estimates as high as 20 million.

"They say it is already hard to get rooms in Rome for Christmas 1999," he said.

As for those computer problems, which are expected to wreak havoc on everything from air travel to toaster ovens at the turn of the millennium, Foley said those are a matter for nations with airlines and industries to work out. The sacraments don't require computers.

"I have been informed that the Vatican budget office has made sure that their computers are in order, so that the Vatican didn't find itself insolvent in the year 2000 by accident. But what can we do about planes?"



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