Papal Twilight Focus of Hospital Watch

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Papal Twilight Focus of Hospital Watch


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


ROME -- The waiting for news of the outcome of Pope John Paul II's Oct. 8 surgery became almost a public duty here.

Nuns waited in convent foyers praying bead after bead for the pontiffs recovery.

Drivers waited in cars, their radios keyed to news bulletins.

Commuters on buses talked unhesitatingly of their anxiety.

Outside the window of the pope's empty apartment overlooking St. Peter's Square, pilgrims cocked their cameras and asked questions that none could answer about when and whether he would return from hospital.

This is a city that, for all its secular energy and international bustle, is inexorably tied to the papacy.

And as folks waited for news, talk and thoughts increasingly turned to the twilight of this papacy, and sometimes to eerie comparisons to the same period in previous reigns.

When the news finally came, it was consoling. The pope's inflamed appendix was removed without incident and physicians found no traces of any new serious diseases. The news was also incomplete. Physicians on hand could not answer any of the questions about the severe trembling in the pope's left hand. According to reports, the Vatican had said recently that the trembling is due to a neurological disorder but has not confirmed or denied that the problem is Parkinson's disease.

For people here who have waited through two operations for gunshot wounds and another operation to remove a large tumor described as on the verge of becoming malignant, the waiting this time was "more anxious" because of John Paul's age -- 76 -- and his obviously deteriorating health.

And, given the secrecy with which papal health matters are handled, many people are also "authentically suspicious of statements that everything is okay," said Irish Missionary of St. Patrick Fr. James Birmingham.

As scores of journalists gathered daily outside Gemelli Hospital here, long after the pope's Oct. 8 appendectomy, "a lot of speculation" remains about the true nature of his health, said Birmingham, the international administrator of the Vatican office Evangelization 2000.

The priest, who has been in Rome more than a decade, said he has no inside information, but noted that Pope John XXIII underwent the same operation when he was in his 80s.

Msgr. Timothy Dolan, rector of the North American College here, was only 13 when Pope John died but said he was stunned by the news and had no inkling that the pope had been suffering from stomach cancer for more than a year.

Dolan, a diocesan priest from St. Louis who studied in Rome from 1972 to 1976, remembers that Pope Paul VI contended with "terrible arthritis," and how he would often allow himself to be carried in a chair to public events at the Vatican.

Not John Paul II, however, who frequently clutches his staff in order to stand erect before taking the next painful step. The difference, Dolan said, between this pope and his predecessors is that "he's so visible and so accessible. Our seminarians often join him in his private chapel for 7 a.m. Mass. With no pope before him was closeness ever possible," he said.

And so, while the rest of the world may think that the Vatican is being secretive and evasive, the comparisons tend to show the current pope as fairly open about his frailty.

John Paul "could hide his trembling hand, he could let himself be carried, but he doesn't," observed Dolan, who doesn't think the pope has cancer. "I believe if he were told he had a terminal illness, he would use it as an evangelical opportunity" to teach others about suffering, the rector said. Both priests hope John Paul will be alive and well enough to usher in Christianity's third millennium. "His whole pontificate is geared to this," Birmingham said.

Although the pope is expected to remain in his 10-room hospital suite (which includes a chapel and kitchen) for seven to 10 days, no one expects to know the whole story of his health when he returns to the Vatican later this month for what is expected to be two to three more weeks of convalescence. …

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