GYOR, Hungary -- The Vatican does its best to avoid the topic, but the health of Pope John Paul II is once again a much-discussed topic, not just within the Vatican press corps but among ordinary Roman Catholics who are concerned to see their once-robust pope looking tired and frail.
On a two-day trip to Hungary, the 76-year-old pope has puzzled and worried observers, at times withdrawing into an unsmiling immobility, with slumped posture and fixed stare, and then, within minutes, getting back on his feet, laboriously but flawlessly carrying on with his diplomatic and ecclesiastical duties.
At the conclusion of a two-hour Mass yesterday attended by an estimated 120,000 people at an outdoor site here in western Hungary, the pope made impromptu remarks on the strong winds that swept the site and told listeners not to be discouraged by the turmoil of the post-Communist era.
He spoke in Italian in a strong voice as if to silence those who had been commenting on his weak rendition of Hungarian texts.
For long stretches at a Vespers service Friday, he appeared withdrawn and passive, staying conspicuously silent during the service's sung prayers.
At a gathering of elderly and sick nuns and monks at the Pannonhalma monastery, the pope himself seemed to sum up his own concerns about growing old and sick.
"Illness is a paradoxical state," he said. "On the one hand it is an impediment to the person, leading to the first-hand experience of one's own limits and fragility.
"On the other hand, it puts us in direct contact with the Cross of Christ and opens new doors to us."
So what is wrong with Pope John Paul II?
At a press briefing yesterday, his chief spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said doctors are still trying to explain his last two bouts of gastrointestinal infection -- one in the spring and one last month, when the pope had to cancel a Mass.
They were not related to an earlier episode at Christmas, when the pope became visibly ill with flu during a televised Mass, Navarro-Valls said.
A CT scan of the pope, conducted after the August episode, showed no connection to a 1992 operation to remove a tumor -- said to be benign but in danger of turning malignant -- from his colon.
Navarro-Valls said there may be a link to the 1981 assassination attempt, when the pope was shot in the stomach by a Turkish gunman in St. Peter's Square.
During the operation after the shooting, about three feet of the pope's intestines were removed.
"Basically, he remains a healthy man," Navarro-Valls said.
But the continuing paucity of solid information about the pontiff's health tends to confirm the well-known adage -- as valid in the Vatican as it once was in the Kremlin -- that the leader is in good health until he is dead.
"People make a lot out of how different he looks, that he looks old," said Cardinal Edward Cassidy, head of the Vatican Council on Christian Unity.
"But they are forgetting that he is 76, has had a long pontificate and undergone three bouts of surgery. This is not a sudden thing.
"It is natural that he ages with years and responsibility. It is natural that his activities change, and it is very wise."
Yet the pope continues to travel. He is scheduled to leave Rome later this month for a four-day visit to France.
Next year, trips are being planned for Poland, the Czech Republic, Brazil and Paris, his spokesman said.
Pub Date: 9/08/96