VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI predicted a "short reign" in comments to cardinals just after his election, and his brother said yesterday that he was worried about the stress the job would put on the 78-year-old pontiff.
Joseph Ratzinger has had ailments in the past, including a 1991 hemorrhagic stroke, that raise questions about how long his papacy will last - and whether the world will watch another pope slowly succumb to age and ailments on a very public stage. Pope Benedict was the oldest pontiff elected in 275 years.
German prelates have expressed concern about Ratzinger's health. One young priest from Cologne, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press in Rome that Pope Benedict has trouble sleeping and has a "delicate constitution." The pope's brother expressed a similar concern in a television interview.
The Vatican declined to comment yesterday on Pope Benedict's health, citing his privacy. The Vatican never officially confirmed that Pope John Paul II suffered from Parkinson's disease until after he died.
Several cardinals, however, acknowledged that Pope Benedict's term will be marked in years, not decades, and that he likely will not be the globe-trotting pope that Pope John Paul became after taking the helm of the Roman Catholic Church at age 58.
"We'll see what he feels like. I mean, he's not a 56-year-old, you know," said British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. "He's a little bit older than that. So he may not do too much traveling. But you never know."
Pope Benedict referred to his tenure in comments to cardinals just after his election Tuesday, when he explained his choice of name. Pope Benedict XV, who served from 1914 to 1922, worked to prevent World War I during his brief pontificate.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George said Ratzinger, who had repeatedly asked Pope John Paul to let him retire, told the cardinals, "I, too, hope in this short reign to be a man of peace."
While he has no apparent history of chronic health problems, the German was hospitalized at least twice in the early 1990s, including in September 1991 after he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that temporarily affected his vision, according to Time magazine and Vatican journalist John Allen in his 2000 book Cardinal Ratzinger. There is no indication that the stroke left lingering health difficulties.
A hemorrhagic stroke, otherwise known as a bleeding stroke, can be caused by many things, including high blood pressure, head injury or weak blood vessels. It is different from an ischemic stroke, which is caused by a blockage in the blood vessels in the brain.
In August 1992, during a vacation in the Italian Alps, Ratzinger was knocked unconscious when he fell against a radiator and bled profusely, Time and the Italian news agency ANSA reported at the time.
Pope Benedict's brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, told the AP yesterday from Regensburg, Germany, that he was concerned about his brother's health and the stress of the papacy. "I'm not very happy," Georg Ratzinger said. "He's OK, and his health is good. I just wish for him, that his health holds out and that his office isn't a worry and a nuisance to him."
Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp said Ratzinger's age came up during the deliberations only because the cardinal turned 78 during the pre-conclave meetings Saturday, "and so there were well wishes. But nothing more." "The pope seems to be in very good physical condition for his age," Glemp told the AP.
Ratzinger, the oldest pope elected since Clement XII in 1730, was clearly chosen as a transitional pope who would fulfill the unfinished business of Pope John Paul's 26-year tenure, yet not be another long-term pontiff. "Obviously, he's 78, so he's not going to have decades ahead of him, but he has a lot of zeal and energy, and he has already committed himself fully to the work ahead of him," Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony told CNN.
Thomas Frauenlob, director of St. Michael's seminary in Traunstein, Germany, where the pope studied as a youth and still visits annually, said he had never heard of any major ailments.