How Serious is the Pope's Illness?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," February 24, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Joining me now from Massachusetts is the former Ambassador to the Vatican (search), Ray Flynn.

Ambassador Flynn, thank you very much.


GIBSON: Your thoughts about this? I don't want to overstate it — a tracheotomy is not the most serious operation in the world. On the other hand, his underlying condition is serious. So, what do you make of it at this juncture?

FLYNN: Well, I [was] deeply concerned when I first heard about it, about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning ET. Of course, it was later in Rome. Vatican officials, who I speak with all the time, were sufficiently concerned about it as well.

The fact is that he's undergone these very difficult physical problems over the last several months. His body is weak; he's in a weak state of health. And to have this kind of operation procedure, he was unable to breathe air about 10 or 11 days ago.

This is a pretty serious situation. It's not just a common cold. This is a very strong, determined, courageous man; but at the same time, he's lived an extraordinary life. But he's also had some very, very serious physical ailments, as a number of your guests have pointed out. Not the least of which [when] he was at death's door, and he believes that only the Lady of Fatima, the Blessed Virgin Mary, saved his life in 1981.

So, this is a man who, as you might say, has lived on borrowed time — borrowed time coming from God.

GIBSON: Just looking over his biography — in 1929, when he was 9 years old, his mother died; his brother died two years later. When he was 18, the Nazis invaded Poland. He went and moved to a limestone quarry to work there to avoid Nazi roundup. And by the time he was 21, his father had died.

He survived the Nazis; he survived the communists running Poland. As you have heard, a lot of people give him credit for breaking the back of the Soviet Union. He has overcome a lot more treacherous things than the flu, but on the other hand, he is quite aged.

FLYNN: The other point of that, John — excellent presentation of his past — you might want to add to that is that he has been the lone consistent, courageous, moral voice when politicians and governments are flapping in the wings over such things as pro-life and this dignity and respect of life and family and the needs of immigrants and poor.

John Paul II (search) has not bowed to political pressures or editorial writers. He has been that consistent voice. So you might add that to the component, as well as being perhaps, not only the most important moral voice of our lifetime, but arguably, the most courageous, moral voice in dealing with political issues that, in some cases, have not been very, very popular or not even been accepted by a lot of the changing secular culture.

So, that's where I really give John Paul II a lot of credit for having the moral courage to stand up and be that strong, moral voice.

GIBSON: Ambassador Flynn, I noted earlier the last pope to step down was Celestine V (search) in 1294. That's 700 years without a pope stepping aside. Just a guess, [but] I'm guessing this pope will not break a 700-year tradition.

FLYNN: Well, going back that far, you'd have to talk to Bill Donahue, I guess, to get an expert, bird's eye view of that one.

I don't think this man is going to step down. I think that one thing that the people should be aware of is that the Vatican: the trains will run on time, and arguably the mechanics of the Vatican itself.

The part that I worry about, to be honest with you, John, is that consistent moral voice speaking out on important political issues. Look at this embryonic stem cell issue, human cloning, not just the war in Iraq or not just the death penalty; but all these other issues that politicians and government don't want to deal with. They're looking for the easy way out.

He's the voice that brings that level of stability and consistency to the dynamic and to the debate. That's the part that really worries me, and worries me not only as a Catholic, but it worries me as a citizen of this earth, to think that we don't have that real strong, moral voice in the absence of John Paul II.

That's what I worry and that's what I pray about.

GIBSON: Ambassador Ray Flynn. Thank you very much for coming on. Appreciate it. And I suspect we'll be talking to you again. Thanks a lot.

FLYNN: Yes, sir. I hope so. Thank you.

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