- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

VATICAN CITY A wistful, ailing Pope John Paul II celebrated his 82nd birthday yesterday before thousands of cheering youngsters but could muster reading only a few lines of his speech before deferring to an aide.
The celebration capped a week in which two prominent cardinals said they believed the pope would retire if his frail health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer govern his church.
John Paul looked tired during the brief, public marking of his birthday in a Vatican auditorium, where a youth band played "Happy Birthday."
Ushers wheeled the pope in and out of the auditorium on a platform, saving him from walking to center stage. But the pontiff gathered enough strength to kiss a youngster.
"Thanks so much, thanks for your wishes," John Paul told the crowd.
The pope appeared reflective during the ceremony, cupping one hand to support his head.
In a departure from his Vatican custom, John Paul read only parts of a two-page speech, leaving an aide to read the rest.
A hand tremor, slurred speech and difficulty in walking symptoms of Parkinson's disease have plagued the pope for years, and doctors have told him to conserve his strength whenever he can.
Yet John Paul begins on Wednesday a five-day trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, which will test his stamina.
Just a few days ago, he asked for spiritual support to help him continue his ministry leading the world's more than 1 billion Roman Catholics.
He has often sounded short of breath during speeches lately, and during Easter week services he was forced to let other prelates carry out some ceremonial duties while he sat near the altar.
On the eve of the birthday celebration, the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, brushed aside talk of the pope's resignation.
"The pope is at the helm of ship, and all we who work at the [Vaticans] Curia are at the oars," Cardinal Sodano, who is Vatican secretary of state, told Italian state television.
The pope took practically no time off to celebrate, except for a lunch with some cardinals and a cake baked by a Polish nun who cooks for him. He also received a group of bishops from Ecuador.
The pope has made heavy travel plans for the next few months. After the upcoming trip, he will visit Canada, Croatia, Guatemala, Mexico and his native Poland.
Bulgaria hopes the four-day visit there will help dispel lingering suspicions that Bulgarian secret service officers were involved in the assassination attempt against the pope in 1981.
Three Bulgarians suspected of complicity in the shooting were acquitted by an Italian court because of a lack of evidence.
Masses across Bulgaria celebrated the pope's birthday, although dozens of posters denouncing the visit also appeared.
In birthday greetings, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said Poles were happy the pope was visiting in August. Thousands of people gathered in the pope's home town, Wadowice, holding up his portrait.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa whose anti-communist campaign was boosted by the papal election of John Paul in 1978, then known as Krakow Archbishop Karol Wojtyla said he had sent his annual birthday letter to John Paul.


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