This article originally appeared in
President meets ailing pope
05/28/2002 - Updated 10:05 AM ET
By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II, suffering from severe arthritis and the symptoms of Parkinson's
disease, met today with President Bush amid discussion inside the Vatican and growing public
debate over whether the pontiff will retire.
White House officials said Bush did not intend to broach the church's pedophilia scandal in the
The pope returned to the Vatican on Sunday from a five-day trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria —
his 96th foreign tour as pope — where his fragility was more evident than ever. Unable to walk
more than a few steps, John Paul, 82, had to be wheeled on a platform. In both countries, he
celebrated Mass but left parts to other prelates to finish.
Most significantly, the Vatican warned over the weekend that the pope, who has made global travel
a big part of his mission, might be forced for health reasons to limit future trips, including this
summer's planned visits to Canada and Latin America. The pope is expected to visit Toronto,
Mexico and Guatemala from July 23 to Aug. 1. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said
of the pope's future travel: "Everything that has been confirmed is confirmed." But he cautioned
that any planned trips can be "deconfirmed."
He issued a statement later Sunday saying no decision had been made on Mexico and Guatemala.
The Vatican continues to brush aside speculation that the pope would voluntarily step down, something that last happened in 1294
when 85-year-old Celestine V resigned.
Still, the pope's health and whether he will retire have been dominant topics of conversation in the Holy See for months. "Every time
the pope's health takes a turn for the worse, people ask themselves, 'How much longer can he go on?' " says Luigi Accattoli, a
longtime Vatican watcher who wrote a biography of the pope.
This month, high-ranking church officials publicly speculated about the pope stepping down. Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger of Germany
and Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said John Paul might retire if his health prevented him from doing his job. Insiders say
the cardinals were referring to a situation in which the pope became incapacitated by a stroke or something similar.
One of John Paul's predecessors, Pope Paul VI, whose tenure lasted from 1963 to 1978, wrote a letter, a succession document
similar to a living will, in 1965. The document, published six years ago, said that if he became unable to communicate, the letter
should be treated as a letter of resignation. There is speculation that John Paul may have written a similar letter.
Short of incapacitation, Vatican experts say, John Paul's reign probably will last until he dies. "I am convinced that as long as the pope
is capable of expressing himself that he will not step down," says John Allen, author of a soon-to-be released book on the papal
selection process. "It's part of his world view. I was told that when a cardinal asked the pope recently about his resigning, John Paul
argued, 'but Jesus did not come down from the cross (alive).' "
There also is the practical matter of succession. According to Robert Mickens, another longtime Vatican watcher, a retired pope would
present problems. "If the former pope is retired, the cardinals would feel less free to take a new direction, and a new pope would feel
the need to continue with the former pope's policies," Mickens says. "If that didn't happen, people could go to the old pope and say,
'Look, they are undoing everything you've done.' ... It could cause a split in loyalties."
Accattoli says Pope John Paul could decide to step down. "The main problem with a (modern-day) pope retiring is that it's never
happened," Accattoli says. "Once it happens and there are no problems, the fears would be gone. John Paul was the first pope to ever
bathe in public, the first to ever go skiing. He's used to blazing trails. ... I do not say it is probable, but it is possible that he might be the
first to retire."
Contributing: Wire reports
Copyright 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
By Vadim Ghirda, AP
Pope John Paul is helped on a
platform Sunday in Plovdiv, Bulgaria,
at the end of Mass.