Despite his physical frailties brought on by Parkinson's disease, his collaborators say John Paul, 84, is mentally alert and capable of making big calls on the direction of the Roman Catholic Church. But even the most steadfast Vatican loyalists concede that a substantial chunk of his workload has been delegated to top subordinates in Rome. A senior Vatican official told TIME, "Things that the Pope would have handled personally in the past are more and more being entrusted to aides." Some duties, such as signing major encyclicals and apostolic letters, cannot be handed off to others. But Vatican insiders say the Pope has now given the green light to the heads of dicasteries to handle their own business virtually without oversight.
"He is still the head of the church," said a priest based in Rome.
"But he's more of a figurehead. He's not making the day-to-day decisions anymore." Insiders say the Pope, for example, increasingly rubber-stamps the recommendations of Giovanni Battista Cardinal Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, who submits names for each new bishop to be appointed.
Still, few insiders expect that his latest health problems make it any more likely that the Pope will step down. "If John Paul were going to resign, it would have already happened," says Rome-based Jesuit Father Keith Pecklers. "He identifies with the mystery of Christ's suffering."