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Show of Strength

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As papal pageantry goes, it won’t make the highlights reel, but it did the job. For days after being hospitalized Feb. 1 for complications from the flu, Pope John Paul II, 84, had been out of sight, recuperating at Rome’s Gemelli Polyclinic. Then, at exactly noon on Sunday, Feb. 6, the gaunt, weakened pontiff appeared at a lOth-floor hospital window. Though he barely had the strength to wave and mumble a nine-word Latin blessing, that was quite enough to reassure the likes of Rome shop assistant Emiliano Vernieri, 30, among the hundreds who had visited daily to offer prayers. On the Mend “There is no way,” he said, “this man is going to let a common bout of flu do him in.”

Vatican insiders say he came close. John Paul, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and acute arthritis, reportedly was eating dinner with an aide at the Vatican Feb. 1 when an inflammation of the trachea caused him to begin to suffocate. Though he initially refused to go to a hospital, two hours later an ambulance rushed him to Gemelli.

The Pope’s condition has stabilized since, and Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls says John Paul reads the newspapers daily to learn “how [his] health is coming along.” He was not expected to officiate at an Ash Wednesday mass (Feb. 9) for the first time in his 26-year papacy. (American Cardinal James Stafford was to do the honors instead.)

Rumors that the pontiff might willingly resign have grown so loud that Vatican officials have addressed them publicly. It’s a possible scenario that has happened before—back in 1294—but it wall not occur again unless John Paul himself decides the time has come. “We must have great faith in him,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano told an Italian reporter on Feb. 7. “He knows what to do.”