Pope's trip to Poland stirs rumors

Ailing pontiff's retirement is topic of speculation


ROME - There are simple, sensible explanations for the trip Pope John Paul II has scheduled to Poland this weekend. It gives him another glimpse of his homeland and allows him to dedicate a new sanctuary outside Krakow that he holds dear.

Then there is the wild, rampant speculation.

Is the 82-year-old pope on the verge of retirement, with a covert plan to announce it among his beloved countrymen? Will he steal away to a Polish villa, never to see the Holy See again?

Those tenacious rumors made a splashy return this week when a French publication presented them as genuine possibilities. Vatican officials issued the requisite denials, just as they did in response to similar accounts weeks earlier and related guesswork before that.

But the constant conjecture, no matter how idle or fanciful, touches on one of the stranger realities of John Paul's astonishingly durable reign. Day in and day out, whether bound for foreign lands or resting here, he commands the keen and sometimes restless attention of newspaper reporters, television producers, book editors and even many lay Catholics who are essentially watching, and waiting, for the curtain to fall.

But the watch over the pope presents a special case.

"Just set your clocks," said John L. Allen Jr., who wrote the recently published book Conclave about the coming papal election and is under contract to write - quickly - a book about the next pope.

"October 16 is going to be the anniversary of this pope's election, and there will be another round of rumors," Allen said.

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