Pope's Condition Said to Be Improving

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 2, 2005

ROME, March 1-- Pope John Paul II spoke for the first time since undergoing surgery last week, a close associate said Tuesday, as Vatican officials waged a campaign to assure the outside world that the ailing pontiff can carry out his duties as supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican office in charge of safeguarding Catholic dogma, told reporters that the pope "spoke with me in German and Italian." Ratzinger, a native of Bavaria, visited the pope in his suite at Gemelli Polyclinic hospital. The cardinal did not say what the pair talked about or for how long, but he emphasized that the pope, 84, was engaged.

"I am happy to say that the holy father is fully alert mentally and also able to say the essential things with his voice," Ratzinger said.

"Essential" has been the Vatican's code word to counter some Catholics who insist that if the pontiff cannot talk, he cannot continue as pope. Defenders of John Paul's continued reign, the third longest in history, say that as long as he can communicate, even if only in writing, he can perform the "essential" tasks of church governance.

The pope's throat has been chronically and progressively constricted by the effects of Parkinson's disease. He frequently asks an aide to deliver his statements at twice-weekly public audiences.

The Vatican has never officially confirmed that the pope has Parkinson's. But Ratzinger alluded to the condition Tuesday by telling Vatican Radio that well-wishers who have Parkinson's had written to the pontiff to thank him for improving the image of those suffering from the disease.

After suffering breathing problems in late January, the pope struggled to deliver even short blessings. When he reentered Gemelli last week, doctors cut a hole in his throat and inserted a tube to ease the passage of air into his lungs.

When the breathing tube is in place and open, the pope cannot speak. But when it is temporarily closed, air can be directed through the vocal cords, allowing John Paul to speak. Doctors say that at some point, a thinner tube might be employed to permit some air to pass through the pontiff's voice box, nose and mouth, allowing him to speak longer. Premature removal of the tube might cause the pope to experience more respiratory problems or even suffocate, doctors warn.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said John Paul was doing voice exercises. "He is well. His condition is improving," Navarro-Valls said. The pope "spent a good night," he added. "Everything is normal. He is a good patient."

Italian Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia echoed Navarro-Valls's appraisal. He said the pope's health has "clearly improved."

"I think he will soon recover his speech," he said.

A Polish pilgrim stands outside Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, where the pope had throat surgery on Thursday.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company