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Pope's Feeding Tube Brings End-of-Life Questions Closer

In recent weeks, illness has reduced John Paul's public papacy to a few short televised appearances in which he fights silently to deliver blessings to his flock.

The pope made a brief appearance at the fourth-floor window of his Apostolic Palace residence Wednesday, and at that time there was no evidence of the feeding tube. He struggled to bless a large crowd of well-wishers in St. Peter's Square and was unable to pronounce a coherent syllable.


Mexican faithful watch the pope as he tries to deliver a blessing from the window of his apartment. In addition to a breathing tube, the pope has received a nasal feeding tube. (Tony Gentile -- Reuters)

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Video: Pope John Paul II blesses the faithful in St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday.
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When the pope lost the ability to walk more than a year ago, Vatican officials said he could still carry on as long as he could talk. When he began to have trouble speaking last year, they noted that he could still write. It is not known whether that is still the case.

Vatican officials say that although the pope cannot speak, his mind is sound. He makes the "essential decisions," said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the senior Vatican guardian of doctrine.

Church experts have identified Ratzinger as one of a handful of close papal collaborators in charge of key church business. The others are Cardinals Angelo Sodano, Giovanni Battista Re and Camillo Ruini. A fifth man, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, is the pope's personal secretary, longtime friend and a fellow Pole.

"The holy father has a group of authoritative figures around him. His will is being understood," Sandro Magister, a longtime Vatican watcher, said in an interview. "Not being able to speak doesn't technically diminish his capacity to lead."

The pope has made clear he will not step down. In Catholic tradition, he is the Vicar of Christ, his deputy on Earth. In a message delivered last year, the pope insisted he would carry on until his last breath. Associates preach that he is providing a valuable message of perseverance to the faithful.

Giancarlo Zizola, an author and journalist, took issue in an interview with the value of the lesson in the face of what he called an "institutional crisis." Vatican cardinals have used the argument of the pope as walking parable "to cover the fact that it is the Vatican cardinals that are governing and the pope is reduced to a mere image."

Given past papal statements on old age and illness, it is difficult to imagine that John Paul is being forced to stay in office against his will. He trumpeted his determination as far back as 1998, when he told health workers at a hospice in Austria that "even in the frailty of the last hour, human life is never meaningless or useless."

In a message delivered three years ago, he said: "It must never be forgotten that human life is a gift, and it remains precious even when marked by suffering and limitations." And last year, he told a meeting of Italian physicians that "suffering, old age, the unconscious state, the imminence of death do not lessen the person's intrinsic dignity."

Special correspondent Stacy Meichtry contributed to this report.


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