Ailing Pope Being Fed Through Tube

By Tracy Wilkinson

Los Angeles Times

March 30, 2005

ROME — Acknowledging that the pope's recovery has been "slow," the Vatican said today that John Paul is now receiving nutrition through a feeding tube in his nose to give him strength.

Public audiences with the pope will be canceled until further notice, the Vatican said.

It was the Vatican's first public statement on the frail pope's health in nearly three weeks, amid growing alarm over his ability to continue his papal duties.

The announcement came shortly after John Paul appeared at his apartment window above St. Peter's Square and, for the second time in four days, failed in an attempt to speak to the crowd below.

Since his release from the hospital on March 13, the pope has made a handful of short appearances at his window but has been unable to utter even the briefest of blessings. For the first time in a papacy now in its 27th year, he was sidelined throughout this month's Easter week celebrations, the holiest period in the Christian calendar.

The pope has looked gaunt since leaving the hospital, where he was confined twice in the last two months for a total of 28 days, and where on Feb. 24 he underwent an emergency tracheotomy to help him breathe.

Italian media reported this week that the pope's doctors were considering re-admitting him to the hospital for a new operation to insert a feeding tube in his stomach and that he was having trouble eating solid foods. The pope, who is 84, also suffers from Parkinson's disease, which makes swallowing difficult.

Instead, the Vatican's chief spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said in a statement that the pope was receiving nutrition through a "nasal-gastric tube" as a way to "improve his caloric intake and promote an efficient recovery of his strength."

It was not clear when the tube was attached, but the implication was that a return to the hospital was not necessary, for now. The feeding tube was not visible during his appearance earlier today.

"The Holy Father continues his slow and progressive convalescence," Navarro-Valls said.

The spokesman added that the pope spends several hours daily in an armchair, celebrates Mass in his private chapel and is conferring with his aides on matters of Holy See and church business.

Navarro-Valls' comments, his first on the pope's health since March 10, were an attempt to allay the mounting doubts over whether the pope will have a visible role in the future leadership of the world's one billion Roman Catholics.

"The Silence of the Pope; the Anxiety of the Faithful," proclaimed a front-page headline Wednesday in the Il Messaggero newspaper.

The pope still has a tube in his windpipe, which further curtails his movements.

"Reducing the vital perimeter of Wojtyla to his private apartment also effectively restricts his exercise of power," Vatican expert Luigi Accattoli noted in Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera, using the pope's surname.

"If the man emerges from this convalescence, and in the Vatican they're confident he will because they've seen him win so many battles, then what we will have is a pope who is lucid but an invalid," Accattoli said, "who will not be able to give speeches and who will be limited to a few words to communicate his will."

The pope has said he considers it "morally obligatory" to provide "basic healthcare" including water and food, to critically ill people, including those in a vegetative state. His comments a year ago seemed to widen the criteria for when extra measures should be taken to sustain life medically.