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Frailty increasingly curtails pope’s activities


Holy Week 2002 will be remembered as the beginning of a new phase in the John Paul II years, one in which Karol Wojtyla becomes more a spectator than a protagonist in the public drama of his pontificate.

Vatican sources in regular contact with the pope insist that mentally he remains alert and engaged. His physical capacity to perform the public functions associated with his office, however, has in recent weeks run up against obvious limits.

John Paul, who will be 82 on May 18, has undergone surgery six times during his pontificate, suffers from a form of Parkinson’s disease that causes his left hand to tremble and his face to appear frozen and unresponsive, and at times wears hearing aids in both ears. A hip replacement surgery in 1994 that was only partially successful has made it increasingly difficult for the pope to walk.

Now a form of arthritis in his right knee is also dogging the pope. After one of his customary Sunday Angelus addresses in late February, a microphone that stayed on a few seconds too long caught John Paul grimacing and complaining, “It hurts!” as he struggled to climb down a small stepladder. Doctors say that at his age and in his condition, the knee may never fully heal.

The cumulative effect was evident to the world in Holy Week. Beginning with the Palm Sunday Mass March 24, John Paul was able only to lead prayers from a seated position and to pronounce his homilies. He delegated all other ceremonial functions to various cardinals, marking the first time in his 23-year pontificate that he had not performed most of the Holy Week rites in person.

Until now, the pope’s age and frailty has been more of an irritant than an obstacle, slowing down the pontiff but generally not stopping him from what he wants to do. In 2000 and 2001, for example, John Paul traveled to Israel, Greece, Syria, Malta, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia, where he followed a fairly standard schedule despite evident fatigue.

Last November, however, the pope quietly scrubbed a trip to Australia to present the concluding document from the 1998 Synod for Oceania. Vatican officials said he was persuaded that such a long journey would simply be too much, a key concession from a pope who said early on that he wanted to play the role of a modern St. Paul, carrying the gospel to the world.

At the moment, Vatican sources say the pope’s upcoming journeys to Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala and Poland are still set. It would surprise few, however, should one or more of these trips be shortened or cancelled.

The pope had a colon tumor removed in 1992, dislocated his shoulder in 1993, broke his femur in 1994, and had his appendix removed in 1996. He uses a cane and for the past two years has used a platform on wheels that the sediari, honorary Vatican officials who used to carry the pope in the elevated sedia gestatoria, push up the main aisle of St. Peter’s and inside the Paul VI Audience Hall. Increasingly the papal household schedules audiences on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace, adjacent to the pope’s private apartment, so that he doesn’t have far to go.

In some quarters, the pope’s condition has revived talk of resignation. Canon 332.2 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law makes provision for a papal resignation. Such speculation is given little credence in Rome, however, in part because John Paul himself has rejected it.

On May 17, 1995, the eve of his 75th birthday -- the age at which canon law requires bishops to submit resignations -- the pope told a general audience that he would leave it to Christ “to decide when and how he wants to relieve me of this service.”

Even more directly, the pope once told Dr. Gianfranco Fineschi, the surgeon who operated on his broken femur: “Both you and I have only one choice. You have to cure me and I have to heal, because there is no place in the church for an emeritus pope.”

What Vatican officials are more prepared to acknowledge these days, however, is the necessity of new strategies for coping with the pope’s physical limits.

One is the growing likelihood that John Paul will eventually use a wheelchair in public. A Roman newspaper reported in late March that a prototype has arrived in the Vatican, courtesy of a 9-year-old Italian girl named Giorgia Papa whose father is a manufacturer. She wrote to the pope during the Jubilee Year, noting that he seemed tired and saying she would talk to her father. The father, Renato Papa, followed up and brought a sample wheelchair to the Vatican Feb. 26, a battery-operated model with reinforced wheels and a seat that can be automatically moved up and down.

Whether such a high-tech model is selected or something simpler, a wheelchair seems the lone solution to the pope’s incapacity to walk even short distances. Given the rolling platform in use since Christmas of 1999, a wheelchair would in any event mark a change in degree rather than kind.

Second, John Paul will often be little more than a bystander at his own public events. Others will perform his liturgies, offer his blessings, even read his speeches. Last fall, for example, the pope had a dental problem that for a few days caused his mouth to swell and his speech to slur even more than normal. At private audiences during this period, an aide read his speeches while the pope limited himself to one or two impromptu remarks at the end. This, according to sources, is likely to increasingly be the norm.

Many Catholics complain that the pope-as-spectator model means that John Paul is no longer in a position to run the church, and should step aside. Some believe it is sad, and perhaps even cruel, for an old man to be wasting away in full public view.

Others, however, see John Paul’s age and weakness as offering a powerful spiritual witness. Jean Vanier, a Canadian layman and founder of the L’Arche movement that works with physically and mentally disabled persons, was in Rome Feb. 5 for a Vatican news conference. NCR asked Vanier if the pope, given the disabilities he now carries on the public stage, is a more evocative figure, if he offers suffering persons hope.

Vanier smiled, and said: “John Paul has never been more beautiful than he is today.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002