Vatican fights tales of ailing Pope

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The Independent Online
SPECULATION about the health of the Pope is almost uncontrollable in the wake of his visit to Croatia last weekend, when, for the first time, he was physically unable to stoop and kiss the ground on arrival.

Symptoms of jitteriness are everywhere. In Rome a funeral mass for the Pope was held during his visit to Croatia, after a priest noticed the hurried return of two members of his staff and jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Anglican leaders have made contingency plans in case the Archbishop of Canterbury, currently touring China, has to fly suddenly to Rome for the Pope's funeral.

In Brazil in July Cardinal Lorscheider of Fortaleza told his diocese that he had just learnt in Rome that the Pope was suffering from bone cancer, and that they should pray for him. This story, too, was swiftly denied.

The Cardinal had to apologise after one of the Pope's doctors said that the leg operation carried out on 29 April would have been impossible if the bone involved had been cancerous. This operation was necessary because the 74-year- old pontiff had broken a leg for the second time in six months, after he slipped and fell in his bathroom.

It was clear to anyone watching the visit to Croatia that the hip operation had not been a complete success. The Vatican press office had claimed that he had walked for an hour in the Italian Alps during the holiday that preceded his visit.

However, the Pope was not only unable to kiss the ground on his arrival, but had to use a specially- built lift to reach the podium from which he celebrated mass in front of 800,000 people.

He walked with a silver-handled cane and in such obvious discomfort that the Italian paper La Repubblica referred to the visit as his Calvary. He seemed to wince with pain, as he has done on several recent occasions. At his audience on Wednesday, he had to hold the back of his throne for support while receiving pilgims.

Until this year, the Pope's fitness and resilience had been remarkable. A keen skier and mountain walker, he has travelled huge distances on gruelling schedules in a way unequalled by any other world leader. The Croatian visit was his 62nd foreign journey. He had survived an assassination attempt, after he was shot at close range by a Turkish fanatic in 1981, and an operation two years ago, in which a growth the size of an orange was removed from his colon.

A 10-day Asian tour is still planned for January next year, when he is supposed to visit Australia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka. But the assumption of his ill health is so pervasive that it is difficult to find anyone who believes that this trip will go ahead.

For the moment, speculation centres on his forthcoming visit to New York on 20 October, when he will address the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 18

(Photograph omitted)