Fears grow for Pope as he misses first weekly blessing in 26 years

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The Pope will not impart his weekly Angelus blessing today for the first time in 26 years, the Vatican said, setting off renewed speculation that John Paul II is more poorly than the Holy See claims.

The Pope will not impart his weekly Angelus blessing today for the first time in 26 years, the Vatican said, setting off renewed speculation that John Paul II is more poorly than the Holy See claims.

The 84-year-old pontiff, recovering from throat surgery at Rome's Gemelli Hospital, "will join in the recitation" of the Angelus prayer in his room but is not expected to make a public appearance at his 10th floor window as he did on 10 February. This was during the first of his two admissions this month to the Gemelli for complications arising from influenza and Parkinson's disease, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said yesterday.

It will be the first time since 1978 that the tradition of the pontiff participating in the Angelus has been broken, a telling indication for many Vatican watchers of the approach of the end of the long pontificate. Even in 1981, after he was shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Agca, John Paul managed to intone the blessing from his sickbed beamed to the world by Vatican Radio, as he did after a major operation to remove a benign intestinal tumour in 1992.

But Vatican sources say that this time doctors treating the stubborn but frail Polish leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics insist that he should avoid the risk of exposure to chilly Roman weather at the window. Nor should he expose himself to the stress of appearing publicly with the small breathing tube that was inserted in his throat during Thursday's tracheotomy to enable him to breathe more freely after repeated respiratory crises.

"The fact of not seeing the Pope's face inevitably increases the anxiety about his state of health around the world," the Italian news agency Ansa said. Yet the Vatican has maintained an upbeat interpretation of the Pope's health, saying that he is sleeping and eating well after the operation and cracking jokes on scraps of paper since the surgery. The Holy See has not said how long he will remain in hospital, and while claiming John Paul will remain mute only for "several days", many doctors say it could be at least several weeks before he can speak again and celebrate Mass.

Dr Corrado Manni, the anaesthetist who attended the Pope during his operation after the 1981 assassination attempt, said the tracheotomy will ease the breathing crises that the Pope has suffered from but will not necessarily prevent them from recurring, putting strain on his heart. Dr Manni told Il Messaggero newspaper that the Parkinson's disease diagnosed in 1992, which prevents the Pope from having full control of his chest muscles "can be slowed down and checked with drugs but it certainly cannot be cured". Dr Manni said: "One cannot exclude that in the future there will develop again episodes similar to the respiratory crisis that started on Wednesday."

The Pope's mute state has set off a debate as to whether he can carry on his duties or ought to resign. Cardinal Francesco Mario Pompedda, a leading expert in canon law, said that juridically "the important thing is that the Pope can express his wishes in a clear and manifest fashion. And this can happen with words, in writing or through gestures, in expressions that clearly show his will."

Other prelates, such as Cardinal Jorge Mejia, point out that a Pope must be able to recite the eucharist and that mutes cannot become priests.

Orazio Petrosillo, Il Messaggero's respected Vatican correspondent, quotes Fr Tadeusz Styczen, John Paul's disciple and successor as professor of theology at the University of Lublin, in comparing the twilight of the Pope's reign to the composition by MendelssohnLieder Ohne Worte, a song without words, meaning that the pontiff's silent suffering represents a powerful message during Lent for Catholics.