By Susan Schindehette
Updated May 24, 2004 12:00 PM

Not long ago, Italian painter Ennio Calabria arrived at the Vatican’s inner sanctum for a momentous occasion. He was there to present Pope John Paul II with the gift of an oil portrait and had brought along nearly a dozen paintings so the Pontiff could pick his favorite. According to a fellow visitor, Calabria’s work apparently “made the Pope very happy. He told us that he appreciated the style: ‘soft focus.'”

On the eve of his 84th birthday on May 18th, the chief shepherd of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics-and, with 25 years under his belt, the third-longest-reigning Pope of all time-may be excused for a little vanity. The once avid skier and hiker is now halting in speech, barely able to walk and in near constant pain from effects of what medical experts believe is an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease (see box, page 76). Along with a team of Polish nuns who have staffed his third-floor Vatican apartment for years, John Paul is now attended around the clock by private male nurses who help him wash and dress and give him an occasional massage. Where once he sprinted through 18-hour days, he now navigates the halls of his palace in a motorized chair dubbed the Pope throne and dozes after lunch for an hour with a book propped in front of him. In short, says veteran Vatican journalist Renzo Allegri, the Pope “has gone from the life of a real athlete to that of a walking crucifix.”

But if the former Karol Wojtyla is now a lion in winter, he still has his roar. Despite a marked slump in his health last fall—a German magazine quoted close aide Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as saying, “He is in a bad way. We should pray for the Pope”—John Paul today is back, surprising critics and making waves. In recent months he has broken tradition by naming women (including American academic Mary Ann Glendon) to high posts and has finished work on a 200-page autobiography titled Get Up, Let Us Go!, after Christ’s words to the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane. His handwriting, says a Vatican insider, is “large and a bit messy” but “clear and readable.” At a recent meeting, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., was shocked when the Pontiff recalled knowing McCarrick “when he was secretary to [the late New York] Cardinal Cooke.” “That was 30 years ago,” marvels McCarrick. “I wouldn’t know who was secretary to anyone 30 years ago. It shows his mind is sharp and his memory is good.”

Even if John Paul has made a remarkable comeback, his life remains restricted. On doctor’s orders, he sticks to a mostly vegetarian diet, avoiding breakfasts that once included prosciutto or roast beef, and meals of Polish favorites like tripe. Although “he has some difficulty in using cutlery, and it takes him quite some time to eat,” says Vatican watcher Allegri, John Paul’s longtime personal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz talks with him during meals to help slow degeneration of the Pope’s vocal and facial muscles. According to Britain’s Times, the Pontiff’s treatment for Parkinson’s, of which he has shown symptoms for at least a decade, includes doses of levodopa, a drug that reduces tremors, and shots of another medication, apomorphine hydrochloride, to help his movement during public appearances.

No special events are planned for the upcoming birthday. “He doesn’t like the fuss,” says Allegri. If strength allows, John Paul will likely listen as tourists gather under his window in St. Peter’s Square to sing “Happy Birthday.” And if they are lucky, he will wish them well. Recalls Cardinal McCarrick from his recent Vatican visit: “When they wheeled the Holy Father out in that special chair, he made them turn around at the door. He wanted to wave to everybody again.”

Susan Schindehette. Praxilla Trabattoni and Simon Perry in Rome, Bryan Alexander in London and Giovanna Breu in Chicago