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Pope presses on despite poor health

Pledges to make Pompeii pilgrimage

VATICAN CITY -- A frail but determined Pope John Paul II led his general audience yesterday and, brushing aside suggestions he is cutting back on his schedule, announced that "God willing," he will travel next week to a shrine in Pompeii.

John Paul looked alert and spirited throughout his two-hour appearance during a muggy morning in St. Peter's Square. He skipped his traditional weekly audience last week because of what the Vatican described as a mild intestinal ailment.

In remarks published Tuesday, a close papal adviser said the pope was in "bad" shape, prompting concern throughout the world for the 83-year-old pontiff.

Other Vatican officials and an author who helped John Paul write a best-selling book said the pope, who has Parkinson's disease, has no intention of stepping down from his post.

At his weekly address, John Paul spent an hour reciting prayers and speeches in several languages, followed by another hour greeting a stream of faithful, who came to his chair on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.

He hugged a pair of smiling little girls with fabric flowers in their hair and patted the head of a wide-eyed baby. In his remarks, he said he intends to make a pilgrimage Tuesday to a shrine to the Virgin Mary in Pompeii, near Naples.

In Paris yesterday, the head of the governing body for the Roman Catholic Church in France said John Paul is 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."

Lalane, who heads the Conference of Bishops of France, added that the pontiff is able to carry out his duties.

"He named some 30 cardinals," Lalane said. "He made choices that are truly his own."

Comments by a close papal aide, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, that the pope was "in a bad way" raised concerns the pope's health might have deteriorated beyond his obvious frailty and difficulty speaking and walking.

The comments, published Tuesday by the German weekly Bunte, were made Sept. 22, the day before John Paul suffered the intestinal illness that prompted him to cancel his weekly address.

Cardinal Jorge Medina, a Chilean who works at the Vatican, was quoted yesterday as telling a news website he had no information to indicate that the pope was gravely ill.

"Nothing makes one think that he is reflecting on the possibility of resigning," Medina said in an interview with www.terra.cl.

"The pope is affected by his health; however, not to the point that he cannot carry out the most important acts of governing" the church, Medina said.

Vittorio Messori, who helped John Paul write the best-selling "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," wrote in the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera yesterday that the pope's decision to continue in the papacy was "irrevocable."'

The possibility of resignation is "a closed subject," Messori wrote, without citing his sources.

John Paul follows doctors's treatments but won't heed their advice to slow down, Messori said.

The pope will have little time to rest before heading to Pompeii, a small southern town built alongside the ruins of the ancient Roman city.

On Saturday, he plans to hold talks at the Vatican with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

On Sunday, in St. Peter's Square, he will celebrate a Mass in which he will canonize three missionaries as saints.

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