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Ailing Pope Ends Trip Amid Concern It May Be His Last

John Paul II is unable to complete a speech or sermon on his four-day visit to Slovakia.

September 15, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — A greatly diminished Pope John Paul II concluded his 102nd trip abroad Sunday, an agonizing, four-day mission to Slovakia during which he was unable to complete a single one of his sermons or speeches.

Weeks shy of marking 25 years as pope, the weakened John Paul revived speculation that this may well be the last time he travels outside Italy -- a thought on the minds of thousands of pilgrims who arrived here from neighboring Poland and Hungary to join Slovaks in worship with the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

On Sunday, the pope presided over an open-air Mass under clear, sunny skies before about 200,000 faithful and honored two communist-era martyrs, a nun and a bishop, placing them in the running for sainthood.

Seated before a scarlet backdrop and a massive crucifix, on a stage laid before an ugly warren of concrete apartment blocks, the pope started out with a relatively strong voice. But by the end of the ceremony nearly three hours later, he spoke in little more than a whisper and handed off the bulk of his prepared remarks to another cleric.

In the final passages, where he was to greet worshipers in seven different languages, hard as he tried, he could only get halfway through.

"I thank God because you have been able to safeguard, even in difficult times, your fidelity to Christ and to his church," the fatigued pope told the people of Slovakia, a former Soviet Bloc land where Christian leaders endured harsh persecution. "I exhort you: Never be ashamed of the Gospel."

Repeatedly during his public appearances in Slovakia, the pope faltered, slurred words, appeared out of breath and had to hand off to aides. Despite it all, crowds loved and cheered him. "Nech zije svaty otec," they chanted: Long live the Holy Father.

No one can predict with any certainty whether the pope will stop traveling. At 83 and afflicted with debilitating Parkinson's disease, he has been in poor health for some time, with peaks and valleys and much speculation over whether he can forge ahead.

By all accounts, it is the pope's unbending determination that keeps him on the road. He sees the public evidence of his physical suffering to be part of the message and part of his duty.

"How can you say what is 'last' with John Paul II?" said Cardinal Josef Tomko, a Slovak who is considered close to the pope. "He always has his surprises. You have seen it."

And the chief Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said Sunday that he strongly doubted this would be the last papal voyage.

"Knowing the Holy Father, I think it is very difficult to say that this will be the last trip of his pontificate," Navarro said. Already, the Vatican has received invitations from Austria, France and the pontiff's native Poland, all of which are being considered seriously, Navarro said.

He added that the pope's infirmities do not hamper his ability to serve.

"It is very moving how he has incorporated his physical limitations into how he performs his ministry," Navarro said.

At a minimum, however, the pope seems obliged to offer a very different evangelism, one in which followers must be content with his symbol, since his message is so often unintelligible. It is likely that travel, at the least, will be scaled back; trips that extend over many days, with daily appearances that demand enormous physical exertion, are probably a thing of the past. In Slovakia, for example, he had to get in and out of the papal aircraft six times in four days, in addition to about 100 miles of travel by car.

"The question is at what point does the expenditure of effort stop being admirable and becomes pathetic," said John L. Allen Jr., an analyst with the National Catholic Reporter who has written several books on the pope. "This is no longer a question of perception but of raw capacity to carry out these missions."

As recently as a trip to Canada in July of last year, the pope was still able to walk off his plane; as recently as the visit to Croatia in June of this year, the pope could stand. Today he can do neither.

Those failings relate to his motor skills. This trip underscored a lagging ability to speak, to read and to interact spontaneously with the audience. There were no moments of spontaneity in Slovakia.

At times, such as during Saturday's Mass in the eastern town of Roznava, he had a vacant look to him. Other times, he appeared more animated, as when he greeted 3-year-old twin girls who were conjoined at the hip but separated surgically; their presence was meant as an argument against aborting defective fetuses, as Slovakia considers liberalizing its abortion laws.

The Vatican has steadily adjusted to accommodate the pope's mounting infirmities.

When he could no longer walk six months ago, Vatican officials contrived a motorized throne-like wheelchair to move him about, and then a special hydraulic device for the papal plane to lower and raise him at airports.

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