Cardinals speak about plans for incapacitated pope as worry mounts over increasing inability to speak

Tuesday, October 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ With Pope John Paul II increasingly unable to complete his speeches, cardinals and Vatican officials have grown more willing to talk about what to do if he becomes incapacitated _ although they stressed Tuesday that he is still able to do his work and shows no sign of resigning.

Concern over the pope's health has mounted in recent weeks and has cast a bittersweet cloud over the celebrations for his 25th anniversary as pope, with cardinals from around the world coming to Rome and finding an increasingly frail pontiff.

English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor had an audience Tuesday with the 83-year-old John Paul and said he found him lucid, able to understand everything and respond, yet weak and obviously having trouble speaking.

``I think these next couple of weeks are going to be difficult for him because there are so many functions, but knowing John Paul, he will do it,'' he said.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls hinted Tuesday the time might come when the Vatican has to figure out what to do with a pontiff who has so relied on his skills as a communicator during his 25-year papacy but can no longer speak.

``I work very close with him, and I see his mind, his capacity for projecting things, for putting new goals, which is absolutely intact,'' Navarro-Valls said in an interview with ABC's ``Good Morning America.'' ``So the problem is not there _ at least it's not there yet.''

When asked whether the Vatican would have to deal with the problem later if it became necessary, he said: ``I suppose so.''

John Paul has had trouble speaking for several years as a result of Parkinson's disease, which causes him to slur his words. Recently, however, he has occasionally been unable to deliver his full speeches, often only saying a line or two before turning the text over to an aide to finish.

The change was most evident during his September visit to Slovakia, where for the first time in 102 foreign trips he was unable to complete his arrival speech. As recently as last week, however, John Paul managed to get through his comments, albeit with great difficulty.

His stamina will be tested with Thursday's anniversary Mass, Sunday's beatification of Mother Teresa and the lengthy ceremony next week to install 30 new cardinals. Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the ceremonies, including official delegations from several countries: The American delegation is headed by Columba Bush, the president's sister-in-law.

There are no specific provisions in church law for replacing an incapacitated pope. If he were to become sick, he could delegate some authority to the secretary of state or another official, but he would have to have made that decision before falling ill. There has long been speculation that popes write letters detailing what to do if they became incapacitated, but the Vatican has never confirmed that.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Murphy-O'Connor said there were guidelines that provide for the College of Cardinals to ``step in'' and decide the future administration of the church if John Paul, or any pope, were to become so ill he couldn't function.

``If there were total incapacity of the pope, then I'm sure the cardinals would take advice from each another and talk about the good of the church,'' he said. But he added: ``I don't think we've arrived at that situation.''

John Paul himself has made clear he does not intend to resign, saying he will carry out his mission to the end.

``He still seems to be able to do it,'' said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C. ``As long as God lets him do it, he's going to continue doing it.''

Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, told the Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias that it didn't really matter if the pope lost his ability to communicate.

``Evidently it would have to be evaluated, it would have consequences, but it wouldn't be fundamental for the pope's work,'' he was quoted as saying. ``The word is very important for those who govern, but the Holy See is governed more by the head than by the word.''

But McCarrick conceded the pope's inability to speak must be frustrating for a man who appeared on stage in his youth, speaks several languages and has made a hallmark of his papacy his ability to communicate with young and old, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

``It must be so hard for him,'' McCarrick said. ``Because I remember 25 years ago, he strode across the stage of the world and he was so eloquent and he could speak so beautifully in so many languages. It must be so hard, but he keeps going, (saying) 'Give me the next page, I'm going to read it.'''