VATICAN CITY – Aides wheel him around on a chariot-like cart during ceremonies at the Vatican. They attach a ledger to the arms of his chair to hold the papers of his speeches. They hold him tightly fearing a fall.
Pope John Paul II turns 82 on Saturday, a stooped figure burdened by several health problems and the backlash from the sex abuse scandal rocking his church in the 24th year of his papacy, the longest pontificate since the 1800s.
Despite the physical strain, he has no intention of easing up, especially in his role as the globe-trotting pope — the "apostle on the move," as Vatican media call him.
"I count on your spiritual support to continue faithfully in the ministry that the Lord entrusted to me," John Paul said Wednesday, responding to birthday greetings from the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square.
Weakened by symptoms of Parkinson's disease and knee and hip problems, John Paul now distributes communion while seated and needs the help of aides to climb even a few stairs. The Vatican — apparently rejecting the idea that the pope should use a wheelchair — has been improvising, using a chariot-like cart during public ceremonies.
After arriving May 5 on the Italian island of Ischia, he seemed so drained of energy that he only limply raised a hand to wave to well-wishers lining his route.
But by the end of the day he perked up when young islanders presented him with a 3-foot-long birthday cake. "For this you need a very youthful appetite!" he quipped.
John Paul is planning three more trips abroad in the coming months, signs he still has the strength needed to carry on as leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics. Top officials reject any suggestion that he is no longer in control and should resign.
Some in his church differ.
"He is an old 82," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a liberal theologian at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. He said John Paul had been inattentive as reports of sex abuse spread through the church.
So far, three bishops have been forced to resign this year — in the United States, Ireland and Poland — and Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law has faced calls that he step down, too. All were appointed by John Paul.
After meeting with the pope during an extraordinary summit of American cardinals at the Vatican last month, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said the pope was deeply saddened by the scandal. "It broke his heart," McCarrick said.
Until now, pressure for the pope to resign was seen coming from liberal Catholics maintaining the hope that a successor might relax church bans on contraception, abortion and the ordination of women and lift the celibacy requirement for priests.
But Italian religion specialist Vittorio Messori, who collaborated with John Paul on his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," said the idea of a resignation is now coming from some conservative cardinals. They are upset by a series of initiatives the pope undertook for the new millennium, including issuing apologies for the sins of Catholics through the centuries, Messori wrote recently in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
On Thursday, a cardinal who is considered a possible candidate to be the next pontiff said he thought the pope would "have the courage" to resign if poor health left him unable to carry out his ministry.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who was in Rome to receive an honorary degree from a pontifical university, was asked by journalists what the pope should do if increasingly frail health leaves him unable to govern the Church.
If the pope realizes "he cannot continue to carry out his ministry for health reasons, he would have the courage to resign," the 59-year-old Rodriguez Maradiaga said.
There is no provision in church law for removing an incapacitated pope, but it does allow popes to resign.
There is precedent — Pope Celestine V, who abdicated in 1294. He spent the last two years of his life in confinement because his successor feared he could become the rallying point for a schism.
On May 22, John Paul departs for Azerbaijan, a country in the Caucasus with only 120 Catholics in a population of 7.5 million, and Bulgaria in eastern Europe. The trip is part of efforts to improve relations with Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
In July, he will travel to Toronto to mark the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day, then fly to Mexico and Guatemala to preside over canonizations before returning to Rome.
In August, he is scheduled to visit Poland, his ninth trip to his homeland since assuming the papacy in 1978.