VATICAN CITY – A top Vatican official acknowledged Saturday what many observers have long suspected — that Pope John Paul II suffers from Parkinson's disease. He said the pontiff's prayers helped him cope with the degenerative neurological disorder.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, made the comments in an interview with the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera on the eve of the pope's 83rd birthday. It was the first time a top Vatican official had publicly acknowledged the pontiff suffers from Parkinson's.
"If we want to look for the secret weapon that has allowed him to beat the years and Parkinson's, we must look to prayer: He puts himself in the hands of God and feels God and the Madonna by his side in the path of life," Re was quoted as saying.
The Vatican has never officially attributed the source of the pope's trembling hands and slurred speech, typical symptoms of Parkinson's. Vatican officials have cited the pope's need for privacy as the reason they have not described his physical condition.
Re's remark was not a formal announcement by the Vatican and appeared to have been a slip during the course of an interview. The Italian media largely ignored it — primarily because it has been so widely assumed that the pontiff had Parkinson's.
Vatican officials said they had no comment on Re's remarks.
The cause of Parkinson's is unknown, but it results from the degeneration of nerve cells that produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is needed to control muscle activity.
Several years ago, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who has a medical degree, said the pope may have an "extra pyramidal syndrome" — which could be one of many problems, including Parkinson's. The term "extra pyramidal" refers to the part of the motor system that controls non-voluntary movement.
Doctors watching the pope from afar have said the problem clearly was Parkinson's.
The pontiff also has crippling knee and hip ailments which have made it virtually impossible for him to walk. Yet he has kept up his public appearances, using a trolley to get around the Vatican and a hydraulic chair to celebrate Mass while seated.
Despite his age and ailments, John Paul has appeared remarkably well in recent months — stronger, more animated and speaking more clearly. The Vatican has attributed those improvements to more rest and physical therapy.
Navarro-Valls has firmly denied any other sort of cures are in play, such as a treatment based on papaya extracts that was recommended by Dr. Luc Montagnier, the French researcher who co-discovered the AIDS virus. Montagnier said he made the suggestion while meeting with the pope at the Vatican in June.
The pontiff also has kept up a vigorous work schedule and is due to make his 100th foreign trip in June, to Croatia.
"I can't say where his spirit finds the strength to overcome the body's weakness, but it's evident that in this birthday he is more serene, you can say stronger compared to a year ago," Cardinal Pio Laghi, a papal peace envoy, told Corriere.
It was one of several interviews Vatican officials gave to Italian newspapers Saturday — many of them remarking on the pope's newfound vigor — ahead of John Paul's 83rd birthday Sunday. The pope plans to celebrate the day with a Mass joined by his fellow Poles and by elevating four more Catholics to sainthood.
The Vatican had said there was a strong chance that John Paul would make an August visit to Mongolia, a predominantly Buddhist Asian nation with a Catholic community of fewer than 200 people.
But in an interview with the La Stampa daily on Saturday, Navarro-Valls said the threat of the SARS virus spreading through Asia might scuttle the visit.
The Vatican also wants a stopover in Russia en route to Mongolia — a visit John Paul has long sought as part of his efforts to promote greater Christian unity. It would be the first papal visit ever to Russia.
The idea has been thwarted by Russia's Orthodox Church, which accuses the Roman Catholic Church of trying to gain converts in traditionally Orthodox lands in the former Soviet Union.