With John Paul visibly weaker in recent weeks, concern over his health has been growing. Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn was the second leading prelate this week to express alarm over the pope's health.
"The entire world is experiencing a pope who is sick, who is disabled and who is dying — I don't know how near death he is — who is approaching the last days and months of his life," Schoenborn, who is the archbishop of Vienna, told Austrian state broadcaster ORF.
Schoenborn is considered a possible candidate for the papacy. His spokesman, Erich Leitenberger, later told The Associated Press the comments were "to be interpreted philosophically."
Since the mid-1990s, John Paul has been battling Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder, as well as crippling knee and hip ailments.
The Vatican, which generally refrains from commenting on the pope's health, declined to respond to the Austrian cardinal's remarks.
However, two Vatican cardinals and one of John Paul's closest aides — the secretary who joined him from Poland when he assumed the papacy 25 years ago — sought to minimize concern about the pontiff's well-being.
Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, promoted to archbishop by John Paul on Monday as a sign of gratitude, took the unusual step of talking to reporters about the pope's health as the pontiff was meeting with the president of Lithuania.
Asked about the state of the pope's health, Dziwisz referred to comments this week attributed by a German magazine to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that John Paul was "in a bad way" and that the faithful should pray for him.
"Cardinal Ratzinger was crying yesterday, explaining that he never gave an interview but merely answered someone he met on the street, saying, 'If the pope is sick, pray for him,"' Dziwisz said.
"Many journalists who in the past have written about the pope's health are already in heaven," Dziwisz added.
The pope looked relaxed and alert during his meeting with President Rolandas Paksas, which lasted 15 minutes and was one of four appointments on the pope's schedule Thursday.
Despite his frail condition, John Paul has one of the busiest periods in his papacy ahead of him. He makes a day trip Tuesday to a shrine in Pompeii and then takes part in celebrations the following week marking the 25th anniversary of his papacy.
The Vatican announced Tuesday the pope will also preside over the ceremony elevating the 31 new cardinals he named Sunday, saying it will be held Oct. 21 on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. The following day, he will preside at a Mass with the cardinals in St. Peter's Square.
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, said Thursday the pope's trip to Pompeii next week shows "there is no reason for alarm."
"I think that the pope and all of us are in the hands of God," he told the ANSA news agency. "To my mind, this alarmism should really be re-thought."
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, said he ate with John Paul on Thursday.
"The pope is well, given the problems that are there for everyone to see," he said, according to the AGI news agency. "He has difficulty moving and pronouncing words. But he is a very strong man, and above all is very lucid, he has a clear vision of the world and of the church."
John Paul looked alert and spirited throughout his two-hour general audience Wednesday. He skipped the traditional audience the previous week because of what the Vatican described as an intestinal ailment.
In Paris on Wednesday, the head of the governing body for the Catholic Church in France said John Paul is "very ill" but still able to lead.
"Things shouldn't be hidden. This pope is very ill," Bishop Stanislas Lalane said on Europe-1 radio. "But I assure you, the church is governed."