By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 27, 2005
ROME, Feb. 26-- For the first time in his 26-year reign, Pope John Paul II will not recite Sunday noon prayers because he needs to recover from the surgical procedure performed this week on his throat, Vatican officials said Saturday.
The pope on Thursday underwent a tracheostomy, during which a breathing tube was inserted below his Adam's apple to ease the passage of air into his lungs. He is voiceless while the tube is present. Besides not reading the traditional Sunday noon Angelus prayer, he will not appear at his 10th-floor window at Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, Vatican officials said.
Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls has indicated that the pope will be unable to speak for a few days, though independent medical commentators have suggested the silence might last longer. The pope is recovering from respiratory problems brought on by a tightening of the throat as well as muscle failures due to Parkinson's disease. His ailment has been aggravated by influenza. He was rushed to the hospital Thursday for the second time in a month.
The inability to speak has raised not only the issue of whether John Paul, 84, can carry out his pastoral duties, but also whether he can govern in his role as supreme Catholic leader. The pope has had difficulty speaking for several months, and some commentators have begun to question how long he can reign if doubts surface about decisions taken in his name.
In the pope's absence, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri is to pronounce the Angelus and deliver a blessing Sunday from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. Sandri has been a frequent verbal stand-in when John Paul, gasping for air and slurring his words, has been unable to deliver statements. The pope will join in the prayer from his bed, Vatican officials said.
Church officials note that the pope can still write and therefore communicate, and say as long as he is lucid, he can govern through close collaborators who know his mind. "For important decisions regarding serious problems and aspects of the church, which have to be taken daily, it is important for him to express himself. Even if he cannot speak, he can write," said Cardinal Javier Lozano Jose Barragan. Italian newspapers quoted several prelates as saying the pope would not resign.
Key officials close to the pope include Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state and its chief day-to-day administrator, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the chief guardian of church dogma and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's deputy bishop of Rome. The pope frequently communicates to the Vatican hierarchy and to visitors through Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, a longtime friend, personal secretary and fellow Pole. Dziwisz has been the only church official constantly at the pope's side during his current convalescence.
Dziwisz' role as papal channel to the outside world was on display Saturday when Pier Ferdinando Casini, the president of Italy's parliament, paid a visit to Gemelli hospital. He did not see the pope, but spoke with Dziwisz and then reported, "There breathes an atmosphere of serenity."
The pope normally delivers the Angelus even when he is outside Vatican City. On May 17, 1981, four days after Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gunman, shot him in St. Peter's Square, the pope whispered a blessing by radio from the hospital. In 1992, after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor, he delivered a recorded version. This month, during his first hospitalization, he sat at his Gemelli room window and gave a blessing after the Angelus was read by an aide.
This is far from the first time that health problems have driven a pope from view. Pope Leo XIII, who died in 1903 at age 93, rarely appeared in public during the last two years of his reign, when he was by all accounts doddering. Pius XII, who died in 1958, was reclusive for much of the last three years of his papacy and communicated with the outside world almost solely through a chief assistant.
But none of these popes operated under the media glare attracted by and encouraged by John Paul II, at least when he was healthy. "The media machine demands signs of life every day. It seems that someone who doesn't speak doesn't exist," said Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant'Egidio Community, a Catholic lay organization.