Pope's Health Shows Mysterious Improvement

By Philip Pullella

Reuters Asia
Fri May 2, 2003 06:23 AM ET

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - When Pope John Paul lands in Spain on Saturday for a weekend trip, people may wonder why, although still frail, the 82-year-old Pontiff looks much healthier than he has in months.

A miracle cure? Divine intervention? A change in medication?

If anyone besides the Pope's inner circle at the Vatican knows, they are not telling.

The Vatican considers the Pope's health strictly private and dismisses suggestions that its details should be as public as those of other world leaders, such as the U.S. president.

Only last August, at the end of a gruelling trip to Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, the Pope looked so weak that some photographers censored themselves out of respect.

But this past Holy Week, the eight days leading up to Easter, the Pope appeared better than he has for some time.

Whereas in the past he seemed short of breath, he now spoke clearly and with a firm voice. He stopped to chat with worshippers carrying offerings during a Palm Sunday service -- something he does not do when not feeling well.

Toward the end of that week, on Good Friday, he put aside the sermon that had been prepared for him to read at a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession at the Colosseum.

Instead, he improvised a totally different sermon, returning to the old preacher that he once was.

And on Easter Sunday, he wished the world a Happy Easter in 62 languages, including several difficult to pronounce from Africa and Asia.

If anyone had any doubts that his mind was still sharp, the improvised sermon and Easter greeting should have relieved them.

Throughout the week, his words were unusually easy to understand, even to people not provided with written texts.

There is no doubt that the Polish Pope, who turns 83 on May 18, is but a pale shadow of his former robust self. His left arm shakes as a result of Parkinson's disease. He also suffers from the effects of a leg fracture caused by an accident nearly 10 years ago and arthritis in the knees.


One of the factors that may help explain his improved health -- but only partially -- is that the Pope now has wheels.

During the Holy Week ceremonies the Vatican introduced several innovations to help him conserve his strength and stay off his feet.

A wheeled throne spares him from standing while moving up the 300-yard main aisle of St Peter's Basilica. And a rolling hydraulic chair lifts him to the level of a high altar, allowing him to remain seated while saying Mass.

The Pope is expected to use the chair during a Mass to create new saints at a ceremony expected to draw up to a million people on Sunday in central Madrid.

As in past trips, aides have factored in a lot of rest time in all his activities.

Speculation that the Pope may have changed his medication for Parkinson's disease surfaced last year when Luc Montagnier, the French doctor who co-discovered the HIV virus, sent the Pope some pills based on a papaya extract.

But aides say the Pontiff did not use them. Doctors observing the Pope from a distance say the current positive phase is probably part of a normal cycle of ups and downs in the disease.

They say he is suffering from what is colloquially called "old man's Parkinson's," a type that progresses, but slowly.

And just to show that he wants to keep on the move, he has scheduled four more trips this year -- to Croatia, Mongolia, Bosnia and Slovakia.