VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II (search) appeared alert and relatively strong Saturday at a meeting with the president of the Philippines, days after illness caused the pontiff to skip his weekly general audience.
John Paul, who was attending a Mass later Saturday for two deceased popes, met for 20-minutes with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (search) and her entourage. Vatican officials helped John Paul to his feet; he shook the president's hand and returned to his seat for the rest of the meeting.
The 83-year-old pope's rare absence at Wednesday's general audience due to a mild intestinal problem raised fresh concerns about his health just weeks before he presides at ceremonies marking his 25th anniversary as pope.
Nonetheless, since that missed audience John Paul has returned to his regular schedule and has held several meetings with Church officials and others.
On Saturday, the Vatican said John Paul II had approved the election of a new Chaldean Catholic (search) archbishop of Kirkuk, Iraq. Archbishop P. Louis Sako, 55, was selected by a Chaldean synod in Baghdad last year.
Chaldean Catholics are the largest Christian community in Iraq, but its numbers have been steadily shrinking, mainly because of economic hardships. The Vatican's missionary news service Fides has said they number between 500,000 and 700,000.
Meanwhile, Italian media have reported the pope may name new cardinals Sunday, thus allowing the new "red hats" to come to Rome at the time of the anniversary celebrations. By tradition, cardinals are installed about 30 days after their names are announced.
The number of cardinals under the age of 80 — and therefore eligible to vote for a new pope — now number 109, which is 11 below the maximum number for a papal conclave.
On Wednesday, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, represented the pope at his weekly audience after the Vatican said the pope had come down with a mild intestinal problem.
John Paul addressed the crowd in an audio message, although he spoke with a weak voice and slurred his words — symptoms of the Parkinson's disease he has had for years.