After nearly 16 years of globe-trotting vitality, even surviving the bullets of a would-be assassin, it has come to this for Pope John Paul II: Only with a helping hand can the leader of the world's 950 million Roman Catholics kneel to pray.
On Wednesday, in presiding over his most recent public audience in the auditorium next to St. Peter's Basilica, Pope John Paul again showed why skeptics have begun to whisper about inevitable decline and papal succession.
As the customarily packed crowd of several thousand pilgrims and admirers applauded loudly, he shuffled slowly across the stage. As he reached the four steps to the platform holding his chair, the applause hesitated for a moment. Holding his left side up with a cane, the pontiff halted, unable to climb the step without a boost from an aide on his right. As he finally reached the top step, the crowd roared in apparent relief. He spent the rest of the proceeding seated in his large chair, occasionally reading aloud in a halting voice from a scripted address.
The pontiff's reign has reached a pivotal moment. If he indeed is suffering only a relapse of a problem from hip replacement surgery in April, as Vatican press officials insist, then he should be back to his old pace by year's end. If not, close observers of the Vatican say, then his papacy will continue to slow down, deepening worries about his health and stirring talk of possible successors.
The wheels of speculation began to turn almost the moment he stepped off the papal plane three weeks ago in Zagreb, Croatia. After Vatican press statements boasting of a rigorous recovery, he emerged as a pale, shaky presence.
Ten days ago, the turning of the wheels accelerated, when the Vatican announced that for health reasons Pope John Paul was canceling his October visit to New York, New Jersey and Baltimore.
"Zagreb was an eye-opener to a lot of people," said Raymond L. Flynn, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a longtime admirer of the pope.
Mr. Flynn is among those who, having met recently with Pope John Paul, believe the Vatican explanation, although Mr. Flynn thinks that a combination of age, past health problems and frustration may also be catching up with the pope.
"He's 74 years old," Mr. Flynn said. "He's had the falls, an assassination attempt and a tumor operation [in July 1992]. . . . I think he's still trying to do everything he was once able to do, and the suggestion that he has to slow down is something that really [adversely] affects him."
Whatever the state of the pontiff's health, the wheels set in motion within the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia, won't easily be braked.
"There are people inside the Vatican who are trying to begin a campaign for succession," said Marco Politi, longtime Vatican correspondent for Rome's La Repubblica newspaper. Mr. Politi is working on a biography of Pope John Paul II (one of at least four biographies in progress) with U.S. journalist Carl Bernstein.
The ground rules for these premature and underground campaigns can be tricky. "Never forget that this is not a lay political society," Mr. Politi said. "You never have somebody campaigning directly for himself."
Would-be leaders tend to emerge from cardinals who speak up at important synods or other gatherings. "They all know each other fairly well, and some make a reputation for themselves as being men who are on the ball," said one Vatican insider.
From that point, supporters take over on their own initiative, spreading the word for their favorites and occasionally poisoning the well for those they dislike.
Enough such activity has already been stirring to create an air of an approaching sports competition in some quarters of the European press. The European, a weekly newspaper similar in tone and depth to USA Today, recently posted odds on reputed top prospects.
The 6-to-4 favorite was the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who had already been dubbed the front-runner by London's Guardian newspaper even though he's a Jesuit, a member of a group considered to be out of favor with the current papacy. Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, from Emilia, Romania, was listed at 3-to-1.
With Pope John Paul having broken a 455-year succession of Italian popes -- as a Pole, he is the first Slavic pope -- handicappers are also looking abroad. Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria is listed as a 7-to-1 shot. He would be the first black pope. Others see Lucas Moreira Cardinal Neves of Brazil as a contender. No American is considered even a remote possibility.
The only thing certain about the successor is that Pope John Paul will have a major impact on the choice. Like a president who extends his influence into the future by packing the Supreme Court, Pope John Paul has appointed the vast majority of the College of Cardinals -- 98 out of 136.
Stacking the college
A significant number of the 38 Cardinals appointed by his predecessors have passed the age of 80, making them ineligible in the voting for the next pope. Canon law allows for up to 120 voting Cardinals, and there are now 21 vacancies, meaning that Pope John Paul can further stack the deck if he pleases.
Those close to the Vatican say he will do so in December, with 21 new appointments. Among the U.S. prelates said to have a chance of landing one of those positions is the archbishop of Baltimore, the Most Rev. William H. Keeler, although the archbishop of St. Louis, Justin Rigali, is said to be first in line among U.S. possibilities.
But such speculation often ends up wrong. That's especially true in the case of handicapping the papal succession. In the world of the Vatican, the favorite's status can even be a hindrance.
"When you have an English newspaper writing that Cardinal Martini is on top for sure," Mr. Politi said, "it is either the wishful thinking of somebody who appreciates the qualities of Cardinal Martini, or it can be the result of a hidden campaign to discredit Martini and to burn his candidacy. Within the church, putting somebody's name out and saying he could be a good pope is maybe the best way to discredit him."
To some outsiders, this brand of politicking might appear unseemly as well as uncomfortably premature, especially coming from a bureaucracy of holy men. And it's not as if the Curia were a place where ambitious priests lined up to apply for jobs. Positions are filled by invitation only.
Yet even in more flattering portrayals over the years, the Vatican has been depicted as a place where rumor is a staple. Less flattering portrayals have been darker still.
Consider the unflattering portrait that emerged in John Cornwell's 1989 book, "A Thief in the Night," all the more embarrassing because the Vatican invited Mr. Cornwell, a respected British crime writer, to do the book. It was hoped that his investigation would end rumors about the 1978 death of Pope John Paul I, who died of a heart attack after a reign of only 33 days.
The book indeed showed the rumors of a papal poisoning conspiracy to be based on the flimsiest of evidence. But it also offered the candid thoughts of Vatican officials, such as one anonymous monsignor who said, "The Vatican is a court, a palace of gossipy eunuchs. The whole place floats on a sea of brilliant bitchery. To get on here you need a sponsor, you have to suck up to somebody."
Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, one of the Vatican's highest ranking lay officials, has a more kindly view. An elegant Spaniard who previously was a bullfighting trainee, a physician and a journalist, Dr. Navarro-Valls said last week, "A close-up of the face of an actress usually allows you to see wrinkles or blemishes that you cannot see with a long picture. But when I got a close-up look at many people working here, paradoxically, the wrinkles disappeared. I found here a lot of very intelligent people, some of them really outstanding people -- people trying to do things the best way they can."
Making wrinkles disappear is part of Dr. Navarro-Valls' job as director of the Holy See press office. But recent statements from his office have only seemed to produce more wrinkles concerning the pope's health.
After the pope's hip surgery after his fall on April 29, press statements depicted him as a man quickly on the mend, and by late June it seemed to be true. Ambassador Flynn and others recall that by then he was walking with a slight limp but otherwise seemed energetic.
When he went on his annual vacation to the Italian Alps in August, the press office talked of Pope John Paul's two-hour walks on mountain trails and released photographs of a strolling pope. Perhaps it wasn't up to his one-time standard of six-hour hikes, or comparable with his past downhill ski runs, but the prevailing image was of returning vigor.
Then came Zagreb, and suddenly everyone was asking: What happened?
When Vatican officials offered little in the way of an answer, worries deepened. And as Mr. Politi put it, "The less they are open about it, the more mysterious it seems."
A fallible pope?
One problem, according to a Vatican official, is that matters concerning the pope's health sometimes become subtly entangled with loftier church principles of papal infallibility. By this line of thinking, admitting that the pope's health is failing is admitting the possibility he might someday become too feeble to be the pope. That would in turn be an admission that he might someday make an incorrect decision.
It also draws attention to a disturbing possibility, one that last surfaced when Pope John Paul was struck by assassin's bullets in May 1981. In an age of "living wills" and of governments that provide for automatic replacement of "medically incapacitated" heads of state, the Vatican has no way to replace a pope unless he dies. By canon law, a pope is fit to serve as long as he's alive.
So now, said one writer who has covered the Vatican for years for a Catholic publication, "there is a fear starting to settle in, even at high levels of the church. It is a very hierarchical organization, and if the head is wobbly, the body just doesn't work."
Until 1983, canon law didn't even say whether a pope could resign. Only one ever has. Seven hundred years ago, Celestine V, an 85-year-old hermit from the mountains, quit after only six months. He decided he wasn't up to the job (and his successor agreed, imprisoning him in a castle tower until his death).
Some observers suggest that a pope could theoretically engineer his own removal by writing a letter of resignation that would go into effect if doctors ever deemed him incapacitated.
All that is known for sure is that Vatican administrative procedures allow two officials -- the secretary of state and the chamberlain -- to assume some of the pope's daily duties in case of incapacitation.
For all his physical difficulties, recent visitors say Pope John Paul is still mentally sharp. He is also sticking to a fairly busy schedule in the Vatican palace, holding his private audiences on workday mornings with bishops (about 600 visit every year) and other visiting groups and individuals.
The pace won't slacken anytime soon. Yesterday marked the beginning of an important synod on matters of the religious life for priests, nuns and consecrated lay people, and by late last week there was revived talk around the Vatican that Pope John Paul will again attempt to visit the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
The next big test concerning his health will come in January, when he is supposed to make a 10-day trip to the Philippines, New Guinea, Australia and Sri Lanka.