Despite slight fever, pope's health is improving, officials say

Vatican revises estimate, says pontiff will remain hospitalized for a week

February 04, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

VATICAN CITY - Here, at the geographical heart of the Roman Catholic Church, on mammoth, majestic St. Peter's Square, the Rev. Alfonse Voorn yesterday squinted up at St. Peter's Basilica, where Michelangeo did some of his last, most notable work, and the priest pronounced himself inspired and saddened.

This is where the ailing Pope John Paul II has celebrated the highest of Masses, appearing each Christmas, each Easter and on hundreds of Sundays.

"I don't have much interest in these buildings for their stones," said the priest, a native of Holland who in November moved to his new mission in Rome. "Aesthetically, of course they are beautiful, but I can't fall over from the beauty. Their value to me is in their inspiration, because they show what greatness man is capable of.

"But as Papa would say," said Voorn, using the Italian name for the pope, "man's greatest accomplishments depend more on what comes out of our hearts than into them. So when I see this, I am usually inspired, but now I look at it and it reminds me how sick Papa is."

Vatican officials said yesterday that John Paul, the 265th pope to sit on St. Peter's throne, has steadily improving health, though they revised their estimate for his release from Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital. They now estimate he will be released in a week, rather than a few days, and they reported he was still running a slight fever.

The pope was rushed to the hospital by ambulance Tuesday for what Vatican officials said was difficulty breathing as a result of the flu.

"The Holy Father's general and respiratory conditions show a positive evolution," the papal spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said yesterday. "He rested well all night and the laboratory tests that were made give a satisfactory result."

Vatican officials, who have minimized the seriousness of the 84-year-old pontiff's medical emergency, said he would be well enough to deliver his weekly address on Sunday but would do so from the hospital, not his usual place at a window overlooking St. Peter's Square.

This is the epicenter of his influence. Vatican City, less than a half-square-mile in size, is legally and diplomatically its own country, where the pope has final authority on all matters.

St. Peter's Square, at the center of it, actually is not square at all. It is keyhole-shaped, with a large, circular plaza surfaced with cut stone. Giant columns, four deep, bracket the central part of the plaza, and their enormousness is not lost by the majestic basilica at the top of the key. The basilica, and the Sistine Chapel just across the way, have been the destination of millions of pilgrims seeking spiritual fulfillment and millions of tourists inspired by the sheer beauty.

"I'm not even Catholic but I have to say, where would you find anything in the world more spectacular than this?" said Stan Huey, a Presbyterian from Derry, Northern Ireland, visiting with his family and friends.

Yesterday, Vatican workers taking the bulbs off a giant Christmas tree drooping from age, teased the crowd watching them, tossing the plastic balls to those who pleaded for them most convincingly.

At the cupola of the basilica, reached at the top of hundreds of stairs, people stood in bright sunshine and gazed across the square and across Rome.

Angela Brown, 31, made the climb with her friend, Angela Richardson, 32, both British tourists. From Brown came the common word used by so many to describe the place. "Inspiring is all I can say," she said. "Everything about it is quite amazing. The painting, the domes, the sculptures. And the history just hits you in the head. You look and imagine how they could have done all this."

Whatever people feel about St. Peter's and its square, Voorn says, bricks and mortar never did a good deed. He recently returned from three years of missionary work in Papua New Guinea, he said, and a beautiful building does nothing to help those people.

"It's like listening to Papa's words," the priest said. "He is a poet preaching compassion and love. People can admire the beauty of his words, but those words are nothing if nobody acts on them."

"That building is just a building," he added, nodding to St. Peter's. "If people come to see it, go home and do nothing to help their neighbor, it remains only a building. If they are inspired by it and show love because of it, then the building is beauty."

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