e-mail us
Pope’s frailty apparent in visit to central Asia

John Paul’s physical decline, attributable both to age and to the Parkinson’s disease Vatican authorities no longer deny, has made the phrase “increasingly frail” almost a part of his title. News stories now routinely begin: “The increasingly frail Pope John Paul II declared … ”

Nothing indicates the pope is in immediate peril. He remains quick-witted and capable of putting in workdays that would exhaust many a younger man. As spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Walls put it, the fact that the pontiff was fit enough to travel to Kazakhstan and Armenia Sept. 22-27 “is a diagnosis in itself.”

Yet during this trip, there were moments in which the signs of age and illness appeared with agonizing clarity.

For one thing, the pope’s hearing aid was visible at several public events. The device first came to public attention when a photographer noticed it in a close-up shot some months ago. Weeks of inquiries from the Associated Press finally elicited a grudging acknowledgment from Vatican officials that the pope is indeed using a hearing aid. They insisted, however, that he does not need help “all the time.”

At one point in Kazakhstan, television cameras caught the pope with a hearing aide in the other ear, suggesting that he may have problems in both ears.

The characteristic trembling in the pope’s left hand, believed to be a product of Parkinson’s, was also unusually pronounced.

At an airport welcoming ceremony Sept. 22, the pope tried a novel solution to the problem, using a small lectern balanced on his lap to hold his speech. The lectern, however, tumbled onto the floor as the pope spoke, prompting Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarabyev, to spring to the rescue.

(An irritated pope mumbled scusi as the president gathered up the pages of the talk).

During an address at the apostolic cathedral in Etchmiadzin in Armenia, the pope at one point seemed unable to continue speaking. A translator read his remarks in Armenian while the pope slumped in his chair, drooling visibly. Yet John Paul then pulled himself up, delivered a blessing, and walked out of the cathedral with Catholicos Karekin II as planned.

John Paul has, of course, weathered many crises before, and there were flashes of vigor on this outing.

When he paid a courtesy call to Nazarabyev, the pope spoke without notes, then warmly greeted members of the president’s family. At one point a nephew started to slip away without taking a rosary, and the pope barked out a loud “hey!” to draw him back.

At a youth gathering at Eurasia University, the pope led the crowd in clapping, and even playfully received the kisses of several young female members of an orchestra. He wore a broad and infectious grin.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001