Pope suffers from heart problems

worry grows

Last rites received, though pontiff is said to have stabilized

`The condition ... is very serious'

April 01, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The Vatican said today that Pope John Paul II's condition was very serious, hours after he suffered "cardiocirculatory collapse and shock."

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement that the pope, who was being treated at the Vatican, was given cardio-respiratory assistance after his heart stopped yesterday afternoon.

"This morning the condition of the Holy Father is very serious," the statement said. However, it said that the pope had participated in a 6 a.m. Mass today and that "the Holy Father is conscious, lucid, and serene."

The frail health of the pope worsened yesterday when he developed a high fever brought on by a urinary tract infection, Vatican officials said. The Vatican reported that his condition had stabilized as of early this morning.

Italian news media said that the 84-year-old pontiff had received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick -- commonly called the last rites or Extreme Unction. The sacrament is performed not only for those who are at the point of death but those facing grave illness.

"He is being treated with an appropriate therapy based on antibiotics," Navarro-Valls, said in a statement issued last night. "His clinical state is being very closely controlled by the Vatican medical team which is treating him."

As news of his condition spread, Roman Catholics throughout the world prayed for the man who has led their church of 1 billion worshipers for more than a quarter-century.

At the edge of St. Peter's Square, hundreds of people gathered early today in a sign of concern over the pope's condition. A few kneeled on the cobblestones to pray, while others wrapped themselves in blankets as they prepared to keep vigil. Some Polish television networks suspended their regular programming to begin broadcasting from the square outside the pope's apartment.

"I've already been praying for hours for John Paul," said Polish Cardinal Andrzej Maria Deskur, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. "The situation is now very serious."

Hospitalized twice in the past month for flulike symptoms and to undergo surgery for the insertion of a tube in his throat to help him breathe, the pope suffered this latest setback a day after he began receiving nutrition through a feeding tube in his nose.

Before doctors began treating his urinary infection with antibiotics, there were also reports he had suffered a worrisome drop in blood pressure.

John Paul was not taken to the Gemelli Polyclinic, where he had been recently hospitalized, but remained in his Vatican apartment under the care of physicians there.

Parkinson's disease and other ailments have left John Paul, the third-longest-serving pontiff in church history, increasingly frail. He has been unable to hold his traditional public meetings on Wednesdays, and on Sunday he failed to read an Easter blessing for the first time in his 26-year papacy.

When he appeared at a Vatican window this week to bless pilgrims, the pope could only make an unrecognizable sound into the microphone held up to his mouth.

At one of Baltimore's long-standing Polish Catholic churches, St. Casimir, the Rev. Ross Syracuse switched his regular Thursday night service to a vigil for John Paul when he heard the pope's condition had deteriorated.

Parishioners, he said, experienced mixed emotions, wanting their spiritual leader to live, yet wanting his pain to end.

"They feel the pope just gives such a powerful witness to their faith and the church, but people feel bad because he's suffering so much," he said.

Days before John Paul took ill, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Pikesville's Beth Tfiloh Congregation was one of 100 Jewish leaders from around the world to meet with him at the Vatican.

"When the door opened and he was there, all I could do was inhale -- I couldn't even exhale," he said.

The pope spoke words of gratitude to the group, then spent a few minutes shaking hands and speaking to each individual.

"He was fully conscious; his breathing wasn't labored," Wohlberg said. "It was a special moment."

Weeks later at his home congregation, Wohlberg delivered a sermon expressing his hope that the pope would not resign despite his weakening health. He sent a written version of the sermon to Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, who faxed it to Rome. Days later, Wohlberg received a fax from the hospital that the pope had received his message.

In the sermon, Wohlberg said: "Even in this condition, he was teaching and he was sending an important message that there is a dignity in suffering and there is a dignity in growing old."

Wire services and Sun staff writers Kelly Brewington and Jill Rosen contributed to this report.

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