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THE WORLD

Anxiety Over Pope's Health Clouds Vatican

Officials break the usual silence on his frailty as the church prepares for several celebrations. John Paul will keep his schedule, they say.

October 04, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — These are contradictory times at the Vatican. Amid the joyful bustle of historic celebrations this month is a newly stark anxiety over the health and survival of Pope John Paul II.

Long rows of chairs were lined up Friday on the esplanade facing St. Peter's Basilica in anticipation of weekend ceremonies in which the pope will name new saints.

And Vatican officials said John Paul plans to go ahead with a crowded schedule that includes marking the 25th anniversary of his election on Oct. 16 and the elevation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta toward sainthood on Oct. 19, an event expected to draw more than 150,000 pilgrims from around the world.

But on several occasions during the last week, prominent cardinals spoke of the pope's mortality and frailty with unusual candor. In each case, aides quickly sought to downplay the comments and calm the concerns -- none too successfully.

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn stirred the most controversy when he told an interviewer in Vienna on Thursday that the pope was "approaching his last days and months" of life. The world, he said, is experiencing a pope "who is dying."

"There is no need for alarm," came the quick assurance from Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who said he lunched with the pontiff Thursday. "The pope is a strong man with a lucid mind and a clear vision of the world."

Cardinal Ersilio Tonini chimed in Friday: "The struggle between the pope's physical weakness and his internal power is clear."

The parade of cardinal commentary was unusual for what is often a closed hierarchy that rarely comments in detail on the pope's health. It may now be that the pontiff's decline is so obvious the cardinals feel compelled to say something.

Particularly vexing for the Vatican, however, is how to juggle the fanfare associated with the month's celebrations and what many feel should be a solemn reckoning with what appears to be the pope's waning time on Earth.

His aides have never been able to dissuade the pontiff from pursuing an active agenda, and less so now. Yet each public appearance only reinforces the perception of his poor condition and fans the debate over how well he can lead the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.

"The spectacle of the pope's suffering creates confusion in the language and in the heart -- even for the cardinals," said Luigi Accattoli, a well-connected "Vaticanologist," as veteran Vatican watchers are known.

That the pope -- who at 83 has endured the bullets of a would-be assassin, hip and knee surgeries, an intestinal tumor and years of Parkinson's disease -- is deteriorating is not in dispute. Already unable to walk, he has recently been unable to finish speeches, slurs what he does pronounce and is frequently short of breath.

But it would be difficult to find a single Vaticanologist prepared to say, with any certainty, that death is imminent.

"The fragility of the pope does not mean that we should expect shocking news at any moment," Marco Politi, Vatican correspondent for the newspaper La Repubblica, said Friday. At the same time, he added, "any stupid virus or bacteria can deliver a serious blow to the weak conditions of the pope.... The situation is really serious."

John Paul last weekend named another 31 cardinals, filling out the ranks of the body that will produce his successor. The announcement came months ahead of schedule, further suggesting to many here that time may be running out.

Vatican officials and other Catholic leaders have for some time been concerned that the pope would fall so gravely ill that he could not function, that he might lapse into a coma or similar condition. That would create a power vacuum, since there are no provisions for appointing a substitute to a living pope.

In the past, John Paul's disabilities have given rise to a once-taboo debate over whether he should resign. Under church law, a pope may resign but cannot be retired against his will.

The pope has made it clear to those around him -- and indirectly in a book of poetry released in March -- that he has no intention of retiring or resigning.

His longtime personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, was among those who this week rushed to minimize alarm over the pope, who is to travel Tuesday to the southern Italian city of Pompeii. He noted that journalistic speculation about the pontiff's decline has been wrong in the past.

"Some journalists who in recent years have spoken and written a lot about the pope's health," he said, "are already in heaven."

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