Traveling through Greece, Syria and Malta, Pope John Paul II has appeared near exhaustion. Aides hover nearby in case he falls. But the Vatican insists John Paul wants to keep on the road, and despite his age and frail condition he has barely cut back on his schedule.
"He has decided to do it and wants to keep going for the next trip," his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, told reporters accompanying the pope Tuesday on the flight from Damascus to Malta.
The next trip is to Ukraine in June, with a journey to Armenia expected in September, both mostly Orthodox countries and among the targets of his efforts to heal ancient wounds in relations between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
Looking ahead, John Paul has accepted more invitations for next year, including a trip to Toronto in July 2002 for the church's World Youth Day.
The Vatican is reluctant to comment on the pope's health, citing his right to privacy.
"He's keeping up with the pace," Navarro-Valls said.
Sometimes it seems just barely, although John Paul does show a remarkable ability to bounce back.
John Paul, now in the 23rd year of his papacy, turns 81 on May 18. His hands tremble and his speech is slurred, both symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, a progressive neurological disorder. He has walked with difficulty since hip replacement surgery following a fall in 1994.
In making his historic visit to the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus on Sunday, John Paul stumbled as he shuffled - using a cane for support - across the carpeted floor.
Watching him with admiration as he struggled was the mufti's personal physician, Dr. Muhammed Tarakji.
"It is remarkable that someone of his age and health would undergo such a visit," said the doctor.
At 58 - young by church standards - when he assumed the papacy in 1978, John Paul was a vigorous skier and mountain climber. His general state of health apparently has never been the same since he was shot in the abdomen 20 years ago by a would-be assassin.
Maltese marveled at the difference in physical appearance in photos published Tuesday of his previous visit to Malta 11 years ago.
At times during his latest pilgrimage, he sat looking exhausted during public appearances, skipped passages in his speeches or had portions read by others.
He looked particularly weak during a stop in a church Monday in the Golan Heights. As a chill wind buffeted the building, his secretary, Bishop Stanislaw Dsiwisz, knelt beside him to comfort him and wipe his face.
John Paul perked up a bit a short while later when he watered an olive tree, a symbol of peace.
According to his spokesman, Navarro-Valls, John Paul had made few changes to his regular routine, awakening early and celebrating a 7 a.m. Mass on most days for invited guests in his private chapel.
he pace at the Vatican, meanwhile, has barely slowed down despite the end of a holy year that drew 25 million pilgrims to Rome. John Paul also resumed visiting Rome parish churches on Sundays.
"Someone should translate from the English for the Holy Father exactly what weekend means," Navarro-Valls joked.
Marek Skwarnicki, a Polish writer, had lunch with the pope before the trip to present him with a book of poetry. He said he found him in clear mind but obviously battling his physical ailments.
"Suffering has become his charisma," Skwarnicki said.
John Paul has also kept his sense of humor.
Stepping off the plane in Malta, he walked by the Vatican press traveling with him and made an Italian hand gesture as if to say, "Hey, I know you're watching me."
By Victor L. Simpson
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