ROME—Ten years after an assassin's bullet almost killed him in 1981, Pope John Paul II laid it in the crown of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The meaning was clear: He was thanking her for sparing his life so that he could continue the work of the church.
So how does a man who believes he was appointed to his job by God and saved for it by the Virgin Mary face the idea of retirement as his health fails? Simple. He doesn't, and for many, that's a growing issue, though perhaps more outside the church than inside.
"Outside the Vatican, there's a lot of talk of retirement, of whether or not he's still healthy enough to perform in the job," said John L. Allen Jr., the author of "All the Pope's Men" and "Conclave," books about the inner workings of the Roman Catholic Church. He's also the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
Inside the Vatican, Allen noted, "the issue is a nonstarter. He's been very clear on the matter."
Pope John Paul appears to be recovering from his most recent health scare, prompted by flu and a throat infection that made it hard for him to breath. He was rushed to Gemelli Hospital on Tuesday night, but the alarm quickly gave way to relief as Vatican officials reported he was gaining strength. Wednesday, Vatican officials said he was able to talk comfortably.
Friday, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls offered an upbeat assessment: "The state of health of the holy father has improved," he said. "Tests confirm that he has stabilized and his breathing is much better."
The pope is expected to deliver his usual Sunday homily from the window of his hospital room.
Still, there's much speculation about whether the 84-year-old pontiff—who has Parkinson's disease along with a medical history that includes the gunshot wound, stomach surgery and various broken bones—is strong enough to preside over the affairs of the world's largest religious organization.
No one in the Vatican is willing to be quoted by name advocating that the pope step aside, and reports discussing the subject are opaque as to who feels how. Some Vatican observers say the discussion isn't needed right now, with the pope on the mend.
But they still wonder if the subject won't have to be confronted soon. "We are talking about an 84-year-old man with advancing Parkinson's," said one Vatican observer who works for a church-related entity and who asked that neither he nor his organization be identified.
London's The Times newspaper quoted unnamed senior sources at the Vatican as saying that some cardinals, who will pick the next pope, are discussing the need for John Paul's successor to favor a mandatory retirement age, probably 80, the same age at which a cardinal no longer can vote for a new pope.
The paper quoted "a senior source" as saying "everyone knows that in terms of hands-on operation, he has not been hands-on for quite a bit now, for 18 months to two years."
Others doubt that's true. They say church business continues without the tell-tale sluggishness of a leaderless institution. Allen noted that Pope John Paul has always believed in delegation.
But his famous travel schedule has been cut back, to just one planned trip this year. And Italian newspapers for years have reported grumblings among cardinals that the pontiff's health restrictions should lead him to consider stepping down.
The pope's health problems are hardly new, starting with the assassination attempt.
He has two full-time personal physicians and a raft of specialists he sees on a regular basis. For most things, he can be treated at the Vatican, but the details of his health care aren't for public discussion, a Vatican official noted Friday. Rumors constantly circulate about his care in the Vatican, but it's widely assumed that the Vatican isn't equipped with the sort of high-tech, high-end equipment found in top hospitals.
Church law—Article 332—allows the pope to retire, but it isn't often invoked. The last pope to retire from the job was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to reunite a divided church. He died two years later as the cardinal bishop of Porto.
There are also provisions for managing the church should the pope become incapacitated, but Vatican officials are unwilling to say what they are. Some reports say the pope has signed a letter allowing a new pope to be chosen if he becomes incapable of carrying out his duties.
John Paul II is the third longest serving pope in church history, and was the longest serving of the 20th century. Appointed in 1978, he's now in his 26th year. During that time, he's traveled more than any other pope, the equivalent of 27 times around the globe and visited more than 100 countries.
Andreas Englisch, the author of "The Secret of Karol Wojtyla: John Paul II," said the debate about retirement may have passed its time. He doubts that the pope has the energy to set up a smooth transition.
He said visiting delegations of bishops used to spend as many as four weeks talking with the pope about problems in their home regions. Now, Englisch said, more and more bishops tell him that meetings with the pope are limited to a few hours in which they do most of the talking and then leave with instructions to deal with the issues as best they can.
"It's clear he doesn't have the strength he once did," Englisch noted.
But there are occasional signs that Pope John Paul is in charge, Englisch said, such as the selection of a member of Opus Dei to investigate charges of homosexuality and child pornography at a seminary in Austria that was subsequently closed. Many documents simply sound like John Paul, Englisch said.
Englisch said he couldn't imagine that the pope would step down.
"He's always been a believer that Rome is not built for two popes, fearing that if there were difficulties with the new one, people might turn to the old," Englisch said. "Right now, I don't believe there is any other possibility: He's convinced that when it's time for him to leave the office, God will call him."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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