National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 26, 2003

Despite decline, Vatican optimistic about more papal trips

Bratislava’s hotel community didn’t have to worry about covering the light bills Sept. 12 and 13.

It was a seller’s market for rooms, with an invading army of journalists descending upon the city after being shocked by television images of a significantly weakened John Paul II on Sept. 11, the first day of his trip to Slovakia.

Television networks dispatched key personnel to both Bratislava and Rome, fearing the worst. Newspapers that had originally decided to skip the expenses of papal travel in Slovakia suddenly ordered correspondents into position. The sight of emergency medical equipment on the papal plane had journalists scrambling to spell and define terms such as “defibrillator.”

In the end, it was the latest in a now legendarily long line of what Mark Twain once called “greatly exaggerated” reports of his own demise. John Paul II weathered the storm and, as he almost always does, seemed to pick up some energy as the days went by. During his Angelus address, he managed to issue greetings to the crowd in Hungarian, German, Ukrainian, Czech, Polish, Italian and Slovakian.

On Sunday, Sept. 14, the pope’s voice was stronger, his face was more expressive, and he managed to read more extended portions of his speeches. He also distributed Communion in person, a gesture sometimes omitted when the pope is especially fatigued.

Observers who follow the pope on a regular basis also noted that he did not seem dramatically worse then he has in most public appearances this summer at Castel Gandolfo, his holiday residence in the hills outside Rome.

On background, Vatican officials told NCR Sept. 14 that it seems clear the pope has reached a new stage in the deterioration related to his age, his Parkinson’s disease, the impact of the 1981 assassination attempt, and crippling hip and knee problems. The weakness in Slovakia, they say, was more than routine up-and-down variation.

At the same time, they expressed basic confidence that the pope could continue to travel, albeit in an increasingly restricted mode. Swiss bishops announced Sept. 4 that John Paul has accepted in principle an invitation to attend the second day of a youth congress in Bern on June 6, 2004, if his health permits.

Moreover, the pope has not backed away from a demanding fall schedule in Rome, with a gala celebration planned for the 25th anniversary of his election Oct. 16, the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Oct. 19, and a series of closed-door sessions with his cardinals in between.

Still, the decline in this once-dynamic pope was clear.

“You would have to be blind not to see a difference,” said Bishop Rudolf Balaz of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, in a briefing for reporters in Bratislava Sept. 13.

“I believe that had it not been for the assassination attempt in 1981, the pope would easily have the force to lead the church until he was 90 or beyond,” Balaz said. “As it is, it’s amazing how he succeeds in keeping up his responsibilities. I told him yesterday how much we all appreciate his sacrifice.”

John Paul’s difficulties in moving from point to point stood out in stark relief on the Slovakia trip. The pope was driven to the airport for each day’s flight and succeeded only with great difficulty in extricating himself from the car seat. He was placed on a rolling chair and taken to a hydraulic lift, which again he struggled to enter. After the lift hoisted him to the aircraft’s rear door, new complications arose of getting the pope into his seat. On the first day, events ran up to 45 minutes behind schedule, in part because of the time it took to get the pope in and out of his various conveyances.

Up to this point, Vatican officials and observers sympathetic to the pope have argued that these obvious physical difficulties augment his message, underlining the depth of his sacrifice and making it clear than he is a spiritual father, not an efficiency-minded corporate CEO.

The question Vatican officials find themselves asking today, however, is when the situation crosses the delicate line from being admirable to being embarrassing, even pathetic.

After the Slovakia trip, most observers when asked for a judgment by NCR didn’t seem to think that moment has yet arrived.

To the question of whether John Paul’s physical struggles made his appearance embarrassing, 20-year-old Anezka Domorakova of Trnava had a simple response.

“Are you crazy?”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 2003

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