Health questions swirl around pope

September 22, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

VATICAN CITY -- What's wrong with the pope?

The health of Pope John Paul II has become a consuming behind-the-scenes question here. Despite official denials that the pope is ill, an end-of-papacy gloom hangs over the Vatican. Rumors abound.

Looking frail, ever more stooped and limping heavily at 74, Pope John Paul is a far cry from the vigorous pontiff who visited Denver and hiked in the Rockies a year ago. Vatican officials and U.S. planners are discussing ways to curtail his public appearances on a planned trip next month to the United Nations and to nearby Northeastern cities, church sources say.

Senior church officials, diplomats and Vatican insiders paint a portrait of a pope troubled by a slow-healing right leg and by difficulty in adjusting mentally to his diminished physical capacity. "It can be hard psychologically for a man who has always been vigorous to adjust to the fact that he is handicapped," says one senior churchman.

By one account, Pope John Paul, who has enjoyed hiking, swimming and skiing all his life, is paying the price for having skimped over the summer on therapy sessions to exercise muscles in the leg that he broke last spring.

Insiders talk of "great tensions" in the papal household, of impetuousness and atypical displays of papal temper. The last-minute cancellation of a visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, left the pope bitterly and visibly upset, Vatican sources say.

Speculation that the problems with a leg broken at the hip in a bathroom fall April 28 are symptomatic of a graver illness has been regularly and specifically rebutted, but it persists. Says one close papal observer: "I think he thinks it is more than just his leg. He sees time running out and so many things he still wants to accomplish. . . . He's pushing to squeeze them all in."

One priest at the Vatican quotes Pope John Paul telling aides that "there's no such thing as an emeritus pope," meaning, presumably, that the pontiff intends to go as hard as he can for as long as he can.

In fact, Pope John Paul, who has resiliently bounced back from injury and illness before -- including grave wounds from a 1981 assassination attempt -- is stoutly resisting efforts by aides to moderate his schedule. Vatican sources say he is working normally.

Although he walked unsteadily and leaned on a cane, the pope made every stop, whether of substance or ceremony, on a long-planned 24-hour visit to the southern Italian city of Lecce last weekend.

Yesterday, he mounted a stage, again with the aid of a cane, for his weekly general audience before cheering pilgrims here.

Officially, there is no cause for alarm.

"There is a mechanical problem of articulation with the prosthesis in his leg, but the operation was a success. We are still within the normal six-month period of recuperation, and total recovery is expected," papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro told the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

"There is no problem in the general state of the Holy Father's health, and no preoccupation for his health," Mr. Navarro said.

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