An actor and playwright in his youth, Pope John, Paul II knows that the simplest gesture can move an audience. From a bold wave to his countrymen in communist Poland in 1979 to his quietly slipping a note in Jerusalem's Wailing Wall more than two decades later, this Pope has always found ways to keep the world watching. But last week, it was John Paul who had to do the watching. Struggling with symptoms of Parkinson's disease and an arthritic right knee, the 81-year-old Pontiff was forced for the first time in his pontificate to step aside and let others lead several of the most important Holy Week Masses. Official word from the Vatican is that the Pope simply has a bum knee and was pacing himself through last week's rigorous schedule. But some observers in the Roman Catholic Church are wondering if a line has been crossed in a 23-year term already being shaped by the Pope's physical frailty.
Once a taboo subject, the Pope's retirement is now openly discussed in certain Vatican circles. Though it is allowed under church law, no one has renounced the papacy since Gregory XII in the 15th century. After John Paul was unable to lead the Palm Sunday procession, Vittorio Messori, a Catholic commentator who has interviewed the Pope at length, wrote a front-page article in the daily Corriere della Sera that offered the first open questions from church conservatives on the matter. "Even with all the trust in the Holy Spirit, can the church live with such uncertainty?" Messori cited one prominent cardinal as saying. Messori, who conducted the only book-length interview with John Paul, told Time that he believes the Pope has no current plans to step aside. "But there are many in the Vatican who wonder if he can carry his work forward."
In recent years, the Pope was largely able to overcome his declining health and shoulder a heavy workload. But last week was a very different story. The Pope was wheeled into St. Peter's Basilica on a moving platform. And though he attended all the festivities leading up to Easter and read several homilies from his velvet throne, the Pope remained squarely on the sidelines as the rites of the Mass were performed by prominent cardinals. Among the annual gestures most dear to the Pope has been the Holy Thursday washing of the feet of 12 priests, symbolizing Jesus' act of humility before the Apostles on the eve of his crucifixion. But the frail Pontiff was again humbled by his health and had to let Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Cardinal Sodano and France's Roger Cardinal Etchegaray do the ceremonial washing.
One Vatican official said such exceptions are unprecedented: "They have someone else celebrate the Mass and then flip on [the Pope's] microphone for him to say certain magic words it's an odd usage of the Roman rite. If you can't do the Mass, you can't do the Mass. And there's no sense he will be able to do it next year either." Beyond his liturgical duties there are also questions about the Pope's control of the daily business of the Vatican, including criticisms that he has been too weak to respond adequately to the widening pedophilia scandal.
If he believed it would be in the church's interest, a pontiff could step down. In such a case, a successor would be elected by the usual method of a conclave of the College of Cardinals. Among the difficult questions in such a scenario is what role the outgoing pope would have in tapping his successor with a few strategic whispers in the ears of prominent cardinals.
Still, such talk may underestimate John Paul's ability to bounce back as he did after a 1981 assassination attempt, surgery on an intestinal tumor in 1992 and a broken femur in 1994. The next true tests of his health will come away from Rome. The Pope has scheduled a series of foreign trips in the coming months, including a 10-day visit in late July to Canada, Mexico and Guatemala. If he does resume his travels, John Paul may be arriving in a wheelchair, a prospect that could alter both the Pope's image and his ability to perform church rites. More important than the Pontiff's legs is his mind. But Messori, who recently studied the history of papal health, said he has faith "in the protection of the Holy Spirit." According to the Catholic scholar, on the long list of maladies suffered by popes over the past 2,000 years, dementia does not appear.