by Gordon Thomas(*)
Pope John Paul has inoperable stomach cancer which recently spread to his colon. A team of palliative medical specialists is now
permanently based in the Papal Apartment in the Apostolic Palace.
They administer drugs to try and ensure the Pope will live to carry out the three climatic events of his 25 years on the Throne of St
They revolve around the anniversary of his election on Wednesday (October 16). The celebrations are planned to include the
beatification of Mother Theresa and presiding over the consistory, or assembly, of cardinals, including the 31 he has just created.
But increasingly the Vatican is preparing the world’s 800 million Catholics for his impending death.
The Vatican will not discuss the specific details of the Pope’s medical condition or confirm the cancer diagnosis.
But in 1992, John Paul had major surgery to remove a large intestinal tumour which doctors diagnosed as cancerous. Two weeks ago,
there was evidence that the disease had returned. Last Wednesday, the Vatican announced that John Paul’s regular general audience in
St Peter’s Square was cancelled because the Pope had complained of “intestinal” problems.
A colonoscopy was performed. The first indication of the gravity of the situation came shortly afterwards.
Two cardinals revealed that the 83 year-old Pope “is failing fast”.
The most explicit was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and one of the most powerful
figures in the Vatican. He said the Pope “is in a bad way”.
His decision to speak publicly was seen by the Curia, the structured hierarchal body which is the Holy See’s civil service, as proof
it could be only a short time before they must prepare for the election of a new pontiff.
The Holy See’s diplomats and its papal nuncios were alerted to the situation by the Secretariat of State. Traditionally heads of the
diplomatic corps of each nation where they are accredited, they told fellow ambassadors of the position.
In Ireland, as in other countries, they would also have discreetly briefed the government and President Mary McAleese.
Such briefings, especially those relating to the Pope’s ailing health, are discussed on a strictly need-to-know basis.
That was why Cardinal Ratzinger’s public pronouncement caused alarm bells to ring across the Catholic world.
Not only was it unexpected and unprecedented, but it was quickly followed by another prelate issuing a statement.
One of the newly appointed cardinals, Archbishop Phillipe Barbarin of Lyon, France, said “the Pope is reaching the end of his road
and is really in bad shape”.
This weekend, candles are being lit and special prayers offered in cathedrals and churches around the world. Cardinals have been told
to be ready to fly to Rome at short notice. Several are already going there this coming week, possibly to be on hand to say their
Mgr George Gainswein, Cardinal Ratzinger’s secretary, said last Thursday that “His Holiness can no longer walk or stand. He is
falling apart more and more each day”.
Yet, despite the evidence of his ever-more rapid deterioration, John Paul has continued to directly involve himself in what has been
one of the pillars of his pontificate: human rights.
On Friday, he sent a message to his Papal Nuncio in Colombia that he wanted the local Church there to become directly involved trying
to free British TV producer Mark Henderson, 31, and the six other hostages held by ELN, the country’s most ruthless terror group.
The backpackers were kidnapped three weeks ago.
This weekend two priests are travelling deep into Colombia’s northern jungles to meet with the kidnappers and bring with them the
“They will tell them that it is the Holy Father’s great wish that these people be set free”, a Vatican source told me.
Four of the hostages are Israelis and the Pope’s intervention follows high level discussions between Ariel Sharon’s government and
the Vatican’s “foreign minister”, Mgr Jean-Luis Tauran. He has just been made a cardinal - making 135 Princes of the Church who
are now eligible to vote for a new pope.
Among them is the Pope’s senior private secretary, Mgr Stanislaw Dziwisz - first to become a cardinal while still serving as the
Pope’s closest aide.
Glint-eyed, with an imperious nose and a sharp tongue, who can rebuke equally well in Polish, Italian, French and German, Dziwisz is
the only non-medical person to freely come and go from the Pope’s bedroom overlooking St Peter’s Square.
There is a nubuliser by the Pope’s bedside to assist John Paul’s breathing. Trolleys dot the room laden with other medical
equipment. They are in striking contrast to the prie-dieu John Paul brought with him from Krakow, along with a striking portrait of
Both are the only visible links with his past. There are no discernible mementos, souvenirs or keepsakes.
The Pope insists on maintaining, as far as possible, his daily schedule. He awakes at 5.30am. Two Papal Attendants help him to dress.
Then they wheel him to the apartment’s private chapel.
The two blue-suited Vigili, members of the Vatican security force, bow as the Pope passes.
Vigili have always stood guard over John Paul, even in the Papal Apartment, since that fearful day in May 1981 when an attempt was
made to assassinate him in St Peter’s Square.
The apartment staff, nuns and secretaries, are joined by the medical team for the early morning Mass.
Afterwards, the Pope has breakfast and begins his work schedule. In between there are periods of rest.
For a man so seriously ill, even a curtailed schedule must have an effect on his health. But he has continued to resist pleas from his
doctors to slow down.
“In so many ways, it is typical of him”, said Mgr Gainswein.
(*)Gordon Thomas is the author of Pontiff and The Year of Armageddon: Travels with the Pope.