Health fears grow as Pope calls off US trip

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FEARS for the health of the Pope, who has been looking increasingly frail, were fuelled yesterday when he called off a planned visit to the United Nations and United States set for 20-23 October because of complications arising from surgery on a broken leg.

Spokesman Joaquin Navarro- Valls insisted the postponement of the visit - it has been set back a year - was exclusively related to the Pope's right leg and that he was otherwise in sound health.

Such protestations will do little to dispel widespread feeling that the punishing schedule the 74- year-old Pontiff has set himself, and other major surgery, have finally caught up with him and he is in steady decline. He has been looking increasingly frail in recent months. On his last foreign trip, to Zagreb, he was unable to kneel to perform his hallmark kiss on the tarmac. When he had to cancel a trip to Sarajevo at the same time, the cited reason was security. 'The doctors are insisting that they want a functional recovery of the leg and of their patient,' the spokesman said.

An official statement said the trip was postponed 'in order to allow for a more complete and more speedy recovery of mobility'.

Faced with a relatively long trip, the doctors said: 'Holy Father, it would be better to postpone this, and the Pope accepted this medical advice,' the spokesman added.

The trip was to have included an address to the UN General Assembly in New York and visits to New York City, Newark, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland. It has been reset to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

The Pope broke his right thigh bone last April when he slipped in his bathroom in the papal apartments at the Vatican. He spent a month in hospital where the head and neck of the bone were replaced with a metal substitute. He has walked since with a cane.

That was his second fall in six months. On 11 November 1993 he tripped on a carpet during an audience at the Vatican, fracturing a shoulder bone. In July 1992 surgeons removed a tumour from his bowel which was turning malignant. In 1981, he survived an assassination attempt when he was shot in the stomach at close range in St Peter's Square in Rome. It was only because he was so fit and strong after a lifetime exercising on the ski slopes and hiking in the mountains that he was able to recuperate to successfully. Since his election in 1978 he has gone on 62 trips abroad, setting a pace few of his officials could keep up with.

The Vatican has done its best to dispel suggestions that this is a lame duck Papacy. The Pope, it said, was still hoping to visit the Philippines, Australia, Papua New Gunea and Sri Lanka in January and would preside over a month long synod of bishops next month. On 16 October, the anniversary of his election to succeed Pope John Paul I, he is due to hold a beatification ceremony at St Peter's.

Vatican officials, while acknowledging that the Pope's recovery from surgery is taking longer than expected, stressed that there was no political motive to the cancellation following the criticism the Vatican received at the UN conference on population and development in Cairo earlier this month.

Those around the Pope report that he is becoming increasingly irritable, partly in frustration at his slow recovery. The visible shrinking of the Pope has set off speculation, however premature, about his possible successor. The College of Cardinals which would elect the next Pope is created after his own image. Two thirds have been appointed by the present Pontiff, and chosen largely for their conservative views which resemble his own. This should ensure that his successor will also be a conservative, at a time of calls from the laity for a more liberal leader of the church.