A comment by a leading German bishop raising the possibility that Pope John Paul II could retire because of ill health touched off a furor today as Vatican prelates and much of the Italian media quickly expressed their support for the ailing pontiff and praised his tenacity.

Bishop Karl Lehmann, who is president of the German Bishops Conference, suggested in a radio interview Sunday that the pope could step down if he became too ill to fulfill his position as leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.

"I have confidence in the pope that when he feels he is no longer capable of leading the church with responsibility he will have the strength and the courage to say: 'I cannot fulfill this [charge] as is required,' " Lehmann said.

Although the remarks were heavily qualified, the fact that the leader of an important bishops' conference would even bring up the possibility of early retirement for the pontiff was exceptional, since popes usually serve for life. The comments may have the effect of breaking the taboo in the Vatican that makes open discussion about the pope's health and possible successor off-limits.

Italian television newscasts led with the story, which also was carried on the front pages of major newspapers. A headline in the Rome daily La Repubblica read, " 'The Pope Is Tired--He Should Go.' The Shocking Proposal From German Bishops."

Lehmann said today that his remarks had been misinterpreted and that he "had in no way called for the resignation of Pope John Paul II." Interviewed on Italian state television, Lehmann said: "I was completely misunderstood, and I protest this manner of reporting my words."

The 79-year-old pope's physical frailty has grown increasingly apparent. It is widely believed that he suffers from Parkinson's disease, although the Vatican has never confirmed it.

According to an transcript of the interview in Italian issued by the Italian news agency ANSA, Lehmann, the bishop of Mainz, was asked if now were the time for the pope to retire. The bishop responded by noting John Paul's "surprising presence of spirit," saying the pontiff has "responded with all his vital energy to this Holy Year."

He followed with his suggestion that the pope would have the courage to step aside if he could no longer carry out his duties, although he added: "For the church and also for society, it's not all bad to see that even popes can be sick."

Lehmann said on Italian television today: "I never made a request for resignation. Only the pope himself . . . can decide; nobody can do it from outside. But I think it's true that you can at least say that the church . . . has this possibility."

The Vatican hierarchy rallied around the pontiff. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the president of the Italian Bishops' Conference, said in an interview in the Catholic daily Avvenire "that the pope is fully able, now as in the past, to carry out with full personal responsibility his office as universal pastor of the church."

Cardinal Pio Laghi, formerly the apostolic nunzio to the United States, said on a Catholic television program: "We have a father, an excellent, exceptional father. Why should we even think about it?"

Even Italian politicians felt obliged to comment. Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said: "I learned with surprise of the opinions of the German bishop . . . . [They are] surprising and not acceptable. If John Paul II were to abandon his role, it would be a great loss."

CAPTION: Bishop Lehmann, shown in Berlin with the papal nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, says he "in no way called for" the pope's resignation.