Ailing and aging, pope is center of speculation

Vatican denies rampant rumors of retirement

By Frank Bruni

New York Times News Service

ROME -- There are simple, sensible explanations for the trip Pope John Paul II has scheduled to Poland this weekend. It gives him another glimpse of his homeland, and allows him to dedicate a new sanctuary outside Cracow that he holds dear.

Then there is the wild, rampant speculation.


Is the 82-year-old pope on the verge of retirement, with a covert plan to announce it among his beloved countrymen? Will he steal away to a Polish villa, never to see the Holy See again?

Those tenacious rumors made a splashy return this week when a French publication presented them as genuine possibilities. Vatican officials issued the requisite denials, just as they did in response to similar accounts weeks earlier and related guesswork before that.

But the constant conjecture, no matter how idle or fanciful, touches on one of the stranger realities of John Paul's astonishingly durable reign. Day in and day out, whether bound for foreign lands or resting here, he commands the keen and sometimes restless attention of newspaper reporters, television producers, book editors and even many lay Catholics who are essentially watching, and waiting, for the curtain to fall.

It is a function of his age and ailments, and it has been going on for an awfully long time. When he traveled to Poland in 1997, some chroniclers cast it as a farewell tour. When he traveled there again in 1999, it was really, surely to be the last time.

"For at least the past 10 years, I've covered innumerable papal trips where a good number of commentators and, for that matter, spectators waved goodbye for what they were sure was the last time, and lots of emotional scripting followed," said William Blakemore, a veteran correspondent for ABC News who covers the Vatican.

The watch over the pope presents a special case for newspapers and television networks. For starters, the Vatican is famously secretive, disclosing little to no information about the pope's medical regimen or any contingency plans if he winds up incapacitated, and that void only encourages speculation and worry. Journalists, like nature, abhor a vacuum.

In addition, the pope continues to travel and make public appearances as he struggles visibly against Parkinson's disease. For that reason, news executives catch fresh glimpses of his deterioration, which reliably prompt new reviews of coverage strategies and concerned calls to correspondents.

"Just set your clocks," said John L. Allen Jr., who wrote the recently published book "Conclave" about the coming papal election and is under contract to write a book about the next pope.


"October 16 is going to be the anniversary of this pope's election, and there will be another round of rumors," Allen said. "Next May is his birthday -- another round of rumors. He's old, and he's been around a long time. It's good copy."

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