- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

ROME — Pope John Paul II was stricken with a sudden urinary tract infection accompanied by a high fever yesterday, and received the last rites amid rising alarm among the world’s Roman Catholics at his dramatically deteriorating health, Vatican sources said.

John Paul, 84, was being treated with antibiotics, and there was growing speculation he might have reached the final crisis after months of precarious health.

As dawn approached, a Polish priest at the Vatican said today the pontiff’s health was stabilizing thanks to antibiotics administered to tame the potentially lethal infection.

Medical sources said the next 24 hours could prove crucial, adding that his condition was precarious.

About 10:30 p.m. yesterday, the chief Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro, took the unusual step of disclosing the evidently sudden deterioration of the frail pontiff’s condition. The announcement followed a day of rumors in Rome that the end to one of the greatest pontificates of the Roman Catholic Church was approaching.

In Jerusalem, a senior cardinal, Archbishop Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, Austria, said the pope “is approaching, one might say, the end of his life.”

The Austrian cardinal, speaking during a visit to the Holy Land, was referring to the decision on Wednesday to begin feeding the pope with a tube inserted in his nose in an effort to compensate for his loss of weight in recent weeks of sickness caused by influenza and Parkinson’s disease.

However the cardinal’s remarks, reported in Rome last night, added to the concern that the Vatican might be preparing the world’s 1.1. billion Roman Catholics for the imminent death of Polish-born John Paul.

Vatican sources said the pope had been anointed protectively with oil in the sacrament for the gravely sick long known as last rites. Such rites are currently called the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Such rites also had been administered to the suffering John Paul several times during earlier health crises.

The Italian news agency AP Biscom reported the pope’s blood pressure had plunged.

A short time after midnight, a crowd of priests, well-wishers and Italian politicians began to gather in St. Peter’s Square awaiting news of the pope’s condition, some of them praying. John Paul’s study light was turned off at about 11:30 p.m.; photographers in the square noticed.

Cardinal Schoenborn was quoted by the Austrian news agency APA as saying he hoped “the moment of comfort arrives for [the pope].”

During his long pontificate, the pope was unbendingly conservative on moral issues, refusing to countenance reforms on contraception or priestly celibacy. But he also achieved an unprecedented rapprochement with the Jewish faith and apologized for the Catholic Church’s mistakes, including anti-Semitism.

John Paul began his reign as an athletic figure, but his health was impaired by an assassination attempt by a Turkish terrorist, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot and wounded the pope in St Peter’s Square in 1981.

The Holy See invariably has announced papal deaths during daytime. But with a large team of Italian doctors attending to him at the Vatican, it could be impossible to contain the news if John Paul died during the night, Vatican watchers said.

On Wednesday the pope appeared at the window of his study over St. Peter’s Square and made the sign of the cross but was unable to speak to the faithful.

He has been undergoing speech therapy to restore his vocal cords after having throat surgery to enable him to breathe through a tube. The purpose was to prevent repeated breathing crises affecting him. Throughout Holy Week, John Paul was unable to preside over ceremonies for the first time in his 26-year pontificate.

The head of a team of doctors who treated the pope in Rome’s Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, Rodolfo Proietti, said there was no immediate plan for the pope to be hospitalized again.

Vatican sources have said that John Paul is opposed to a further hospitalization after two recent stays at Gemelli and “would prefer to die at home,” meaning his apartments in the Apostolic Palace where he has lived since his election to St. Peter’s Throne in 1978.

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