ROME — 'I feel fine from the head up," Pope John Paul II told a Polish friend inquiring about his health before the pope's visit to his native Poland.
The truth is, in his 80th year and 21st of his pontificate, the longest Holy See reign in the 20th century, the pope is deteriorating steadily and visibly, though, unquestionably, his mind, his intellect and his sense of humor remain as powerful as ever. Yet, the talk of Rome wonders how long will this supremely activist pope be able to fulfill his mission physically. Is he in danger of incapacitation? Is he considering resigning at some not too distant future?
Meanwhile, it is the pope's unflinching sense of duty that energizes his tour de force as the third millennium approaches. He is determined to preside personally over the planned celebrations for the full Jubilee Year, from the moment he knocks three times on the great sacred doors of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican at midnight of Christmas Eve until Jan. 6, 2001, when the doors close again.
John Paul once remarked that "there is so much more" God wishes him to do as pope, even after two decades as head of the Roman Catholic Church, and "there is so little time left" to him. Indeed, there is an increasing sense of urgency and continued involvement on his part, notwithstanding the ravages of Parkinson's disease, from which he has long suffered, and the constant, visible pain left over from past surgeries. Television images of his visit to Poland last week showed him stooped, walking with great difficulty--actually, shuffling rather than walking--and seemingly wincing from it all. Yet, he radiated joy in being home again.
In liturgy, the pope maintains his unprecedented rhythm of beautifying Catholics, the step before sainthood, convinced that it strengthens and spiritually ennobles his church and the religion he represents. Early in May, he beatified Padre Pio, a Capuchin friar, known for his Christlike wounds, whom he knew when he was a young priest, before a quarter-million on St. Peter's Square. Last week, he beatified 108 Polish Catholics who were killed by the Nazis and declared martyrs, a controversial act that some Jewish groups regard as an attempt to "Christianize" the Holocaust. Still on this trip, he will canonize Kinga, the medieval Hungarian princess who became the queen of Poland.
Five days before departing for Poland, John Paul had flown by helicopter to the Adriatic port of Ancona to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the city's cathedral. Ancona is across the sea from Yugoslavia, on waters where NATO pilots jettison unused bombs as they return from their attacks. He used the occasion to warn that the Balkan conflict was "a heavy defeat for humanity." The pope has used all the devices of Vatican diplomacy to bring peace to the region. A week after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began bombing Yugoslavia, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, brought together the ambassadors of all the NATO countries and permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to propose solutions. Next, the pope sent Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister, to Belgrade to meet with President Slobodan Milosevic and Serb Orthodox Patriarch Pavle.
The pope, in fact, played an important if generally unnoticed role in seeking to bring Orthodox churches--and, most notably, the Russian Orthodox Church--into Balkan peacemaking. In mid-April, he sent a personal message to the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow to enlist Russian cooperation in helping to end the war, mindful of the Orthodox Church's influence with Russian policymakers. Late last month, the pope arranged a secret meeting in Vienna between a senior Vatican diplomat and Father Kiril, the foreign-affairs advisor to the Russian patriarch. Finally, John Paul made a point of receiving the moderate democratic Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova, brought out of Yugoslavia by a Rome organization closely associated with the pope.
In Poland, the pope will have visited 21 towns in 13 days, the longest of his eight visits to his homeland, repeating his warning that capitalism should not triumph at "the expense" of the poor. Early next month, he plans to fly to Armenia for the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity there. In October, he expects to be in New Delhi for the synod of Asian bishops. Late in November, the pope is to pray at Ur, in the parched desert of Iraq, where patriarch Abraham was born. In March 2000, he hopes to set foot in Jerusalem as part of millennial celebrations.