Pope Holds Audience, Plans Trip

As concern for his health mounted, Pope John Paul II presided at his general audience Wednesday and said that "God willing" he will visit a shrine in Pompeii next week.

The frail 83-year-old pope appeared alert and read his speeches in various languages at the audience attended by some 12,000 people in St. Peter's Square. He waved to the crowd as he was driven in an open vehicle around the square.

He said that "God willing, on Oct. 7" he would make a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Pompeii, near Naples.

John Paul missed his general audience last week because of what the Vatican called a mild intestinal ailment.

His appearance came after one of his closest advisers was quoted as saying in remarks published Tuesday that John Paul was "in a bad way" and urged Catholics to pray for him.

The comments by German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger raised concerns the pope's health might have deteriorated beyond his obvious frailty. The pontiff suffers from Parkinson's disease, which makes it very difficult for him to speak and walk.

"He is in a bad way," Ratzinger told the German weekly Bunte. "We should pray for the pope."

The comments were made Sept. 22, a day before the pontiff came down with the intestinal ailment.

Ratzinger's aide at the Vatican, the Rev. Georg Gaenswein, told The Associated Press the cardinal in no way indicated John Paul's health had worsened recently.

Gaenswein said Ratzinger was responding to a request by a group of visiting German brewers who were to have an audience with the pontiff while they were in Rome.

"They were told, 'Unfortunately, this is not possible. The pope's health doesn't allow him to make a lot of physical effort,"' Gaenswein recalled.

The pope will also celebrate a Mass on Sunday on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica to raise three churchmen to sainthood. Canonization ceremonies generally last about two hours, an indication the pope's doctors think he has the stamina for the appearance.

Gaenswein noted that conserving strength was particularly important in the run-up to a heavy schedule John Paul has given himself for October, including celebrations of his 25th anniversary as pope.

On Saturday, John Paul holds talks at the Vatican with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The talks are likely to cover the recent explosive decision of the U.S. Episcopal Church to name its first openly gay bishop.

After Wednesday's audience, the pope, seated in a throne-like chair on wheels, greeted selected pilgrims for nearly an hour atop the steps of St. Peters' Basilica.

The Vatican-based Chilean cardinal Jorge Medina was quoted Wednesday as saying that John Paul had neither lost his ability to govern the church nor had any intention of stepping down.

Medina told the Web site he had no information to indicate that the pope was gravely ill but that he was suffering from the burdens of age and his ailments.