Voice That Rallied Roman Catholics Is Silenced
Tracheostomy to Prevent Pope From Speaking for a While

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 26, 2005

VATICAN CITY, Feb. 25-- The voice that encouraged millions to revolt against communism and to battle evil and moral decline, that attracted Roman Catholic faithful in more than 100 countries to vast religious gatherings and captured the attention of leaders across the globe was silent Friday.

Pope John Paul II, unable to speak, rested in Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, a day after doctors cut a hole in his throat to ease the passage of air to his lungs and end the threat of suffocation brought on by debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

The Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said the pontiff was breathing without the aid of a respirator but would not be able to speak for at least a few days. The treatment included insertion of a tube into the pope's throat that allows air to enter his lungs and bypass his mouth, nose and upper throat. While the trachea is open and the tube is attached, speaking is impossible.

Navarro-Valls insisted that the tracheostomy was "not an emergency procedure." But he went on to say, "It was a question of ensuring adequate breathing of the patient."

After weeks of battling the flu combined with the long-term ravages of Parkinson's disease and old age, the pope's weakened physical condition has become increasingly evident. In youth and into middle age he was an agile athlete and powerful orator. A hip ailment and arthritis now prevent him from walking. Parkinson's disease inhibits respiration and makes his hands tremble. No one can remember a time when the leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics could not preach, much less talk. "As far as I know, this is the first case ever, and that's why they are calling the condition temporary," said Alberto Melloni, a Catholic historian. "It will be totally unprecedented if it lasts."

Navarro-Valls hinted at the emerging Vatican consensus on how to handle the pope's communication problem: The pontiff, he pointed out, is able to write.

The spokesman said that after John Paul left surgery, he jotted a question on a piece of paper: "What have they done to me?"

"He meant it as a joke," Navarro-Valls said.

But the pope went on to write, "I am still totus tuus ." This is the pope's Latin motto. It means "completely yours" and refers to the dedication of his mission to the Virgin Mary.

At issue is whether the pope, 84, will be able to carry out his duties as "full and supreme" leader, as defined by church law.

Problems would arise if a change of policy is needed or conflicts break out among church officials, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a Catholic magazine. For example, U.S. Catholic standards for dealing with sex abuse cases are up for review, he said. Suppose the American bishops and Vatican officials disagree? Only the pope can settle such deadlocks, Reese said.

If the pope is incapacitated for a long time, it would be a disaster, Melloni asserted. "The government of the church requires a certain degree of responsiveness that now does not exist," he said.

A situation in which the pope becomes "impeded," that is, fully incapacitated, would be worse still, Melloni said. There are no regulations that permit anyone to declare the pope impeded and the papacy vacant. "Everyone knows that 84 years is very old, but nothing has been prepared at all," Melloni said.

The Vatican described the events of the past two days in optimistic terms. Navarro-Valls said the pope had not run a fever nor suffered from any "pathology," specifically a lung infection. He called the surgery "elective," meaning that it was not done as an "urgent or emergency operation."

Navarro-Valls contradicted Italian news reports that the pope had been put on a respirator Thursday. "We never used a respirator," he said. The pope "had no need of assisted breathing."

John Paul ate a breakfast of caffé latte , 10 small biscuits and yogurt, Navarro-Valls said. "He's breathing on his own, and cardio-circulatory conditions remain good," Navarro-Valls said. He added that on the advice of his doctors, the pope would not speak for several days "so as to favor the functions of the larynx." Gone was any talk of flu that had dominated previous Vatican descriptions of the pope's condition.

Outside observers were gloomier. Even if the breathing tube is removed in a few days, full recovery from the operation and the recent respiratory problems could take weeks, said Corrado Manni, former head of the emergency department at Gemelli. "Basically, the patient has to be closely monitored. If you remove the tube before breathing has returned to normal, you risk a relapse and you would have to reopen him and do it all over again," he said.

Confusion over the actual state of the pope's health seemed to hold down both spontaneous and organized prayer at St. Peter's Square and Basilica in Vatican City. Crowds of tourists and pilgrims filed into the area, but few appeared to be taking time out to pray for the pope. "They said he is all right," said Carmen Ortiz, from Murcia, Spain. She was following a group of pilgrims into the huge church. "He is old, so these problems can be expected."

Nuns pray during a Mass dedicated to Pope John Paul II in Zakopane, Poland.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company