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Aging pope's health draws concern as heatwave grips Italy
By Philip Pullella, Reuters, 7/23/2003
CASTELGANDOLFO, Italy -- When Pope John Paul was wheeled into the courtyard of his summer residence Wednesday, thousands of people anxiously fixed their eyes on him to see how he would hold up during his general audience.
The pontiff's health seems to have worsened in recent weeks and as temperatures soar in a relentless Italian heatwave so rumors fly about his frail condition.
Withdrawn into a secluded summer retreat, the general audience is one of only two weekly events when the world can get a glimpse of the 83-year-old Pope and gauge his strength.
During Wednesday's 75 minute appearance, the pope skipped parts of his speech, was short of breath and had difficulty pronouncing some words.
But on the other hand, he read greetings in some 10 languages, acknowledged the crowds' cheers and greeted dozens of people as they came up to be blessed by him, including 40 newlywed couples dressed in gowns and tuxedos.
"His suffering is clear, but I'm not worried," said Bernadette Mnaduguwe, who came to Italy from Nigeria to see him.
"I know that the God who put him there will give him the strength until it pleases him to take his life and until there is someone else ready to take up his role," she said.
The pope moved to the Castelgandolfo summer residence two weeks ago and is scheduled to stay in the cool hills south of Rome until early September.
Church sources have said the apparent deterioration in his health -- slurred speech, fatigue, and stiffness of the facial muscles -- may be caused by a change or reduction of medication during the summer months when the pope has fewer engagements.
They also said the pope is undergoing physical therapy at the villa, which provides him total privacy in a lakeside setting of lush gardens and even a working farm with dairy cows.
Vatican officials say the pope will spend the summer months resting and writing a book about his experiences as a bishop.
The pope, who was once called "God's Athlete" because he climbed mountains and left aides breathless during world travels, can hardly walk anymore without intense pain.
An operation for a broken leg in 1994 and more recently the onslaught of crippling arthritis in the right knee has virtually eliminated his mobility.
Aides wheel him around in a white-padded throne equipped with a small motor so it can be raised or lowered.
For the second year, the pope has not gone to northern Italy for his traditional two-week break in the mountains he loves so.
This has only fueled the rumors that his health has taken a turn for the worse.
"We saw him in 1982 and it was very moving to see him again, obviously looking very frail, but keeping in there, so good on him," said Maria Lozoryk, a Catholic from Bradford, England.
"I am worried because he looks so frail but we are sure that God has him in His care and we hope he's got a few years left."