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Reporter's Notebook: Rumors of Pope's Demise Exaggerated

The pope is dying again. I just read about it yesterday.

Some of my friends heard it on the radio, and called to see if it was true.

By my count, Pope John Paul II has been dying since one Friday afternoon in September of 1994. I was sitting in the Time Magazine office in Rome when I got a call from my boss in Paris.

"Are you seated?" he asked.

"Yeah," I replied.

"Good," he told me with a sense of real urgency. "We're doing a cover story on the pope. 'Lion in Winter.'"

The word had come from New York. The end had come for the first Polish pope, the first non-Italian pontiff in more than 450 years.

I didn't think a cover story was a very bright idea. Not that there wasn't concern about the pope's health. He had broken his leg earlier that spring, and that week the Vatican announced that his November trip to the United States would have to be postponed.

I think one of the editors at Time in New York had heard a network report declaring in solemn, stentorian tones that this was "the FINAL PHASE of the pontificate."

Friday night is closing night for Time, so it would have been quite a job to put out the magazine. But fortunately, it never happened. Sanity prevailed, and two hours later my boss called to say it was off.

Now I almost wish it had happened. It would be funny to have a 10-year-old Time Magazine cover on my wall with a picture of Karol Wojtyla under the words, "Lion in Winter."

All I can say is that it's been a pretty long "final phase." Since that September, the pontiff has made 42 international trips.

Granted, many of those trips were not long. One was a 13-hour hop to Bosnia last year, and his recent pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, lasted just 36 hours.

The Pope who liked to ski and swim has stumbled, mumbled and fallen asleep in public as he comes to grips with age, Parkinson's disease and severe arthrosis in his knees.

It would certainly be interesting to get inside John Paul's mind and find out how a man who was once all about body language feels when he can no longer even smile and is constantly drooling. 

What happened in Lourdes that got everyone so excited?

John Paul started falling over when he was kneeling for a short while on Saturday. Lesson to be learned: The Pope shouldn't be kneeling.

On Sunday, when he was reading his homily, John Paul was short of breath and said "Help me" at one point in Polish.

He had a glass of water and finished reading the text. After the Mass, he greeted pilgrims in seven languages. Lesson: Make sure he has some water nearby.

The day after the trip, a Belgian cardinal said in an interview that the pope was dying. Oh, your eminence, you don't want to do that. He's been outliving those who write about him and those who might succeed him for about a decade now.

By the way, the cardinal has a lot of company. One of his Brazilian colleagues told us years ago that the pope was suffering from bone cancer. It seems to be spreading fairly slowly.

The 1995 book "The Next Pope," by Peter Hebblethwaite, now seems somewhat quaint, given that some of the front-runners from 10 years ago have since moved on to meet their maker.

There are some people who have a kind of mystical vision of the Slavic pope and think he won't die until after he's set foot in Russia.

I'm not among them.

I think the pope could die in two days or two years. But I won't start thinking the end is near until he's stopped appearing in public — sick, short of breath, and searching for that line he's supposed to read.