Expert: Pope Will Not Step Down

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Pope John Paul II (search) is not considering resignation despite his increasingly frail health, a leading Italian Vatican expert said Thursday, a day after the Vatican said the pontiff has begun receiving nutrition through a feeding tube in his nose.

The comments by Vittorio Messori, a leading Catholic author who helped the pope write the 1994 best-selling book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," were published in a front-page article in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

The pontiff's frailty has fueled speculation about his possible resignation for years. On Wednesday, the Vatican acknowledged the pope's recovery from surgery last month has been "slow."

Messori said Thursday that John Paul, who has rejected the possibility of stepping down in the past, has not changed his mind.

"I must confess: In seeing that the situation appeared to be worsening in such a visible way, I have wondered whether John Paul II might consider reviewing his decision" not to resign, Messori wrote. But, he added, "John Paul II will not step down."

"Whetever happens, whatever the evolution of John Paul II's pathologies, the church will not register another ex-pope in its annals," Messori wrote.

Papal resignation is extremely rare, but is allowed by church law. With speculation swirling, many officials have insisted the pope's grip on the church remains firm despite his ailments.

In a statement Wednesday, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls (search) said John Paul had been fitted with a nasogastric tube to "improve the calorie intake and favor an effective recovery of strength."

The statement was issued shortly after John Paul made a brief appearance at his studio window Wednesday and tried unsuccessfully to speak to the crowds in St. Peter's Square below for the second time in a week.

After managing just a rasp of his voice, he blessed well-wishers by making the sign of the cross with his hand and withdrew.

A nasogastric tube is common in people requiring supplemental nutrition. A plastic tube is threaded down the nose and throat and into the stomach, allowing liquid food to be fed directly to the stomach.

Dr. Barbara Paris, director of geriatrics at Maimonides Medical Center (search) in New York, said the tube may be just a temporary measure to boost John Paul's nutrition while he continues his recovery. But she said it could also be the first step toward having a more permanent feeding tube inserted directly into his stomach.

That procedure, known as PEG — percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy — involves making a surgical incision in the abdomen so that a feeding tube can be passed directly into the stomach, bypassing the throat altogether.

The nasogastric tube is less invasive and a simpler solution to the PEG procedure, but is not generally used for long-term supplemental feeding, Paris said. While the nasogastric tube is uncomfortable, no sedation or surgery is required. John Paul can eat and speak with it in place, experts said.

It wasn't clear when the tube was inserted; it was not visible during John Paul's appearance Wednesday.

Italian media had reported that John Paul's doctors were considering a PEG tube because he was having trouble swallowing — a procedure that would require a new hospitalization. Navarro-Valls' statement, the first medical report on John Paul since March 10, appeared to indirectly deny any hospitalization was planned.

A Vatican official, speaking on grounds of anonymity, confirmed this, saying any eventual decision would be up to the pope's doctors.

In the statement, Navarro-Valls said John Paul was continuing his "slow and progressive convalescence" from a tracheotomy Feb. 24. In that surgery, a tube was inserted in John Paul's throat to help him breathe.

He said John Paul spends "many hours" seated in an armchair, celebrates Mass in his private chapel and has work contacts with his aides "following directly the activities of the Holy See and the life of the church."

But he said John Paul's public audiences remain suspended.

The feeding tube was the latest in a series of interventions for the frail 84-year-old pope, who has battled Parkinson's disease for years as well as hip and knee ailments that have made it virtually impossible for him to sit or stand.

In addition to the tracheotomy, the pope has had an inflamed appendix and benign tumor on his colon removed, and underwent hip replacement surgery after falling in the bathroom in 1994. He was shot in the abdomen in 1981.

The pope was rushed to Gemelli Polyclinic hospital twice last month with breathing crises. He last spoke to the public on March 13, shortly before being discharged from hospital a second time.

Since then, he has been unable to speak publicly. On Sunday, he tried but failed to deliver his "Urbi et Orbi" blessing to tens of thousands of people gathered for Easter Mass.