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Pope's pain seen as a message

| Saturday, Feb. 26, 2005

VATICAN CITY -- Young and vigorous when he assumed the papacy, Pope John Paul II has been a picture of pain and suffering in recent years, a bent figure with trembling hands and quavering voice.

Yet the 84-year-old pontiff appears intent on playing out his agony for all the world to see -- sending out a message of dignity, courage and acceptance of the trials of life.

As the pope was rushed to the hospital Thursday for the second time in three weeks with breathing problems, the Vatican newspaper suggested that he was sharing in Christ's suffering and said "the bed of pain" has become "the cathedral of life."

Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino called it "a real example of how to accept human suffering."

It is a message that top aides have been making as a pope once called "God's athlete" has steadily deteriorated physically over the past decade, burdened by Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments.

Some question, however, how long a pope who once skied and hiked can guide the 1 billion Roman Catholic faithful when his voice is silenced and he no longer can walk.

The pope munched on cookies Friday and jotted messages to an aide about his condition as he recovered from surgery to ease another breathing crisis.

The Vatican took pains to emphasize the positive: He was breathing on his own, showed no signs of pneumonia and ate a breakfast that included coffee with milk, yogurt and 10 small cookies.

But other descriptions were impossible to ignore: the pope fitted with a tube to ease his breathing and following doctors' orders to avoid speaking, at least for several days.

Each detail of his condition was shadowed by uncertainty, including how long the tracheotomy device would remain and if the pope would regain full command of his voice. No official health update was expected until Monday.

The idea of a mute, hospitalized pope drives home a clear Vatican worry: that the pope's ailments are reducing his abilities to communicate -- a hallmark of his 28-year papacy that has included 104 international trips and several best-selling books.

"This is a big problem," Cardinal Martino said of the pope's temporary inability to speak. "He will find other ways to communicate, that we know already."

But the pope's health troubles will likely amplify debate among the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics on a possible resignation -- which is something the pope has rejected as he draws comparisons between his suffering and essential elements of Christian faith, such as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Earlier this month, the Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, declined to rule out the possibility of resignation and said it was "up to the pope's conscience."

This could become a crucial point, some theologians and Vatican observers said. The pope's concern for the church could eventually conflict with his diminished abilities.

"Modern medicine can keep someone alive long after they can really function in this world. At the same time, the papacy has grown in importance," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, the author of a book on Vatican practices.

"Right now, he says he won't resign. But, on the other hand, if a doctor tells him, 'You are going to be bedridden for the next five years, and we can keep you alive but not really anything more,' then the pope could reach another decision."

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