VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Pope John Paul II marked the start of the 23rd year of his papacy Monday, meeting with pilgrims from his native Poland and some of his top advisers.

``I thank everybody, at home or abroad, who has accompanied me with their prayers in these 22 years,'' John Paul said at an audience with 6,000 Poles who had come to the Vatican on a Holy Year pilgrimage.

The 80-year-old pope said the prayers gave him strength.

Monday was a Vatican holiday to mark the Oct. 16, 1978, election to the papacy of the then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow by his fellow cardinals. He was the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

John Paul already was the longest-serving pope of the 20th century, and only the 12th in history to see his papacy stretch past two decades.

The Vatican said the pope also met Monday with Cardinal Camillo Ruini, chairman of the Italian bishops conference, and six Rome bishops.

The longest-serving pope was Pius IX, who was pope from 1846 to 1878 _ 31 years.