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Pope appears weaker on birthday

Following days of intense speculation about his possible resignation due to poor health, Pope John Paul II let a priest read his response to birthday greetings in an apparent effort to save his strength.

About 7000 students in the Vatican's Paul VI hall exuberantly sang "Happy Birthday" and waved red, white and yellow scarves. In contrast to the energetic greeting, the 82-year-old pope looked wan. Pushed into the hall on a wheeled platform, an increasingly common form of transport for his public appearances, he waved feebly.

The pope said only a few words before turning his text over to a priest in what Vatican officials said was a planned move. John Paul shows symptoms of Parkinson's disease and arthritis of the knee. In a recent appearance on the Italian island of Ischia, aides had to help him up the steps to an altar.

In the past few days, two prominent cardinals have obliquely raised the issue of a papal resignation. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said that "if the day comes when he determines he cannot continue his ministry, he will stop." And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's office of orthodoxy, said the pope would resign if he could not continue.

However, Ratzinger softened his comments, which he gave in an interview with a German Catholic weekly, by saying, "If his mission means he must suffer, he will surely persevere."

On Wednesday, John Paul tried to reassure pilgrims at a public audience that he would go on. "I have confidence that your spiritual support will help me continue faithfully in the ministry," he said.

The pope's perseverance in the face of several maladies made him an object of admiration. On Wednesday, the pope will resume his international travels with visits to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. In July he is scheduled to travel to Canada, Mexico and Guatemala, and in August, to his native Poland. He still harbours hopes of visiting Russia but has been blocked by the opposition of Alexy II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pope Says He's Comforted By Prayers (AP)

Washington Post

20 May 2002