With each of the Pope's excruciating appearances--from the shuffling steps and slurred sermons of last month's trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria to his abbreviated meeting at the Vatican last week with President George Bush--speculation has grown that John Paul II may be too enfeebled to continue leading the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.
Shooing away rumors that he might soon step down from the lifetime charge, Vatican officials insist that the Pope is still sharp mentally. But even his staunchest defenders now concede that Parkinson's disease and an accumulation of other physical trials have left the Pontiff, 82, in an increasingly deteriorating condition. Adding long breaks and naps in what were once 17-hour workdays, the Pope has been forced to yield control of much of the Vatican's daily operations. But to whom?
The first place to look would be among Rome's heavyweight Cardinals--conservative stalwarts like Germany's Joseph Ratzinger and savvy bureaucrats like Congregation of Bishops chief Giovanni Battista Re, who now have a chance to advance their own agendas without papal scrutiny. But many insiders say the real power behind the papal throne lies with a humble Polish clergyman they call Don Stanislaw.
In 1978, when he became the first non-Italian Pope in more than four centuries, John Paul II made sure to bring along from Cracow his trusted personal secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz (pronounced Geevish), who started working for him in 1966. When the Pope was shot in 1981, it was Dziwisz who caught the fallen Pontiff in his arms--and he has been by the Pope's side ever since. Dziwisz sleeps next door to the Pope's bedroom, stands just over the Pope's shoulder during Mass and, apart from certain one-on-one meetings, is with the Pope virtually every waking moment of the day.
Such constant proximity has given Dziwisz, 63, a degree of power only dreamed of by even the most ambitious prelates. "Dziwisz isn't just the gatekeeper. He's calling major shots and major appointments," says a Vatican official, who, like his colleagues, requested anonymity. "He seems to be a quiet, faithful secretary. And I think he is. But even with his quiet demeanor, he has incredible power--and uses it." He reportedly blocked one bishop's appointment to a key post because he considered that priest more vital to the Pope's personal needs.
His influence, most Vatican watchers agree, is rising in direct proportion to the decline in the Pope's health. Nineteen years older than his secretary, the Pope is said to have had a father-son relationship with Dziwisz. That has turned around in recent years. "Dziwisz takes care of everything from handing the Pope a tissue to helping him make important decisions and choosing who can see him," says Polish journalist Marek Lehnert, who has spent 20 years covering the Vatican.
Not considered an intellectual or ideological force, Dziwisz isn't looking to shape doctrinal issues, insiders say. Instead, the secretary has come to serve as a mediator among the powerful priests inside the Roman Curia. As John Paul's condition declines, the priests' individual powers seem to be expanding. "The Cardinals just bring him papers and say, 'Sign this,'" is how one Vatican insider describes the Pope's daily activity.