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It is a rainy, dreary Wednesday morning, but the mood inside the cavernous Pope Paul VI Hall is jubilant. The crowd roars as Pope John Paul II, dressed in a flowing white robe and skullcap, shuffles slowly toward his beige throne on the stage.

The pontiff, looking a bit tired, preaches the gospel in a voice that betrays weariness. His words are barely audible, but this does not dampen the enthusiasm of the faithful, some of whom have traveled by bus from Poland to glimpse the shepherd to the world's 968 million Roman Catholics.As the pontiff leaves the hall, the crowd shouts in various languages - English, Spanish, Polish and Italian - "Long live the pope!"

Elsewhere behind the walls of the Vatican, the mood is far less buoyant. For the first time, the princes of the church working here have begun, at least privately, to contemplate the possibility that this ailing 76-year-old pontiff may not live as long as many pilgrims to Rome would like.

Although the pope underwent successful surgery in October to remove his appendix and is once again on a grueling schedule, his health is a constant worry for Vatican officials. And while it would be considered unseemly to speculate openly, privately those in the Roman Curia, or the offices of the Vatican, have begun pondering a future without him.

"There is a perception inside the Roman Curia that this is a declining papacy," said Marco Politi, an Italian journalist who has covered the papacy for nearly two decades and is co-author of a recently released book, "His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time."

"There always comes a moment, and we have come to one now, when the people inside the Vatican begin to sense that the time is coming when there will be a change of leadership. There is a sort of wait-and-see attitude," he said.

Vatican officials say that worries about John Paul's longevity are contributing to profound concern in the Vatican's upper echelons about the vitality of Roman Catholicism around the world as Christians prepare to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Aside from the religious significance, the celebration of the millennium is also seen here as an opportunity to shine an international spotlight on the Vatican.

The pope has established a special millennium commission headed by a cardinal to organize celebrations and conferences.

Worldwide during the next three years, every Roman Catholic diocese is expected to devote one year to study and reflection on one aspect of the Holy Trinity and find ways to strengthen the faith.

It will be a tall order.

Despite the enormous popularity of the pope, one of the most important pontiffs of modern times, the Roman Catholic Church stands at a crossroads as the dawn of the third millennium approaches.

While the numbers of Roman Catholics are on the rise, particularly in Africa and Latin America, Vatican officials acknowledge that sheer numbers alone do not equal a healthy and dynamic church.

"I don't think the church is on its deathbed; I don't think it has terminal cancer," said Cardinal Edmund Szoka, president of the Prefecture of the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. "But we have to keep evangelizing, finding ways to proclaim the faith and not sit back and think everything is all right."

The faith has been weakened by a variety of secular and religious forces, according to Vatican officials, from the excesses of capitalism to the increasing influence of Islam, the globe's largest and fastest-growing religion.

In Western Europe and the United States, the church has lost its hold over many Roman Catholics who rarely attend Mass, who ignore Vatican teachings they disagree with and whose faith has little influence in their daily lives.

In the years since the collapse of communism, the pope has focused on what he views as the excesses of capitalism, characterized by rampant materialism and a lack of respect for society's weakest members, including the poor, children and immigrants.

But the pope's strong moral admonitions, whether in writing or in speeches before thousands, while attracting praise from some followers, have had little impact on pressing global problems, observers say.

"Lots of people will still habitually call themselves Catholics, but it doesn't take long for people, especially in a pluralistic world, to decide that it's only a label with no meaning, so that if the label doesn't fit, then you can choose another one," said the Rev. Robert Christian, vice dean of the theology department at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. "I think a lot of people take the voice and words of the pope as just one thing to consider."