And in His 82nd Year, John Paul II Rested

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An actor and playwright in his youth, Pope John Paul II knows that the simplest gesture can move an audience. From a bold wave to his countrymen in communist Poland in 1979 to his quietly slipping a note in Jerusalem's Wailing Wall two decades later, this Pope has always found ways to keep the world watching. But last week it was John Paul, 81, who had to do the watching. Struggling with an arthritic right knee and symptoms of Parkinson's disease, the Pope for the first time in his pontificate stepped aside and let others lead several of the most important Holy Week Masses. Official word from the Vatican is that the Pope simply has a bum knee and was pacing himself through last week's rigorous schedule. But some church insiders are wondering if a line has been crossed in a 23-year term that is increasingly being shaped by the Pope's physical frailty.

Once taboo, talk of the Pope's retirement is openly heard in some Vatican circles. Though retirement is allowed under church law, no one has renounced the papacy since Gregory XII in the 15th century. After John Paul was unable to lead the Palm Sunday procession, Vittorio Messori, a Catholic commentator who has interviewed the Pope at length, wrote a front-page article in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera that offered the first open questions from church conservatives on the matter. "Even with all the trust in the Holy Spirit, can the church live with such uncertainty?" Messori cited an unidentified Cardinal as saying. Beyond the Pope's liturgical duties, there are also questions about his control of the daily business of the Vatican, including criticisms that he has been too weak to respond sufficiently to the pedophilia scandals. Messori says he believes the Pope has no plans to step aside but adds, "There are many in the Vatican who wonder if he can carry his work forward."

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In recent years, the Pope was largely able to overcome his declining health and maintain a heavy work load. But last week was a different story. The Pope was wheeled into St. Peter's Basilica on a moving platform. And though he attended all the festivities leading up to Easter and read several homilies from his velvet throne, the Pope remained on the sidelines as the rites of the Mass were performed by prominent Cardinals. Among the annual gestures most dear to the Pope has been the Holy Thursday washing of the feet of 12 priests, symbolizing Jesus' act of humility before the Apostles on the eve of his crucifixion. But the frail Pontiff had to let Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Cardinal Sodano and France's Roger Cardinal Etchegaray do the ceremonial washing.

A Vatican official said such exceptions to papal tradition are unprecedented. "They have someone else celebrate the Mass and then flip on [the Pope's] microphone for him to say certain magic words--it's an odd usage of the Roman rite," he told Time. "If you can't do the Mass, you can't do the Mass. And there's no sense he will be able to do it next year either."

A Pontiff is bound to step down if he believes it is in the church's interest. In such a case, a new Pope would be elected by the usual method of a conclave of the College of Cardinals. Among the difficult questions in such a scenario is what role the outgoing Pope would have in choosing his successor.

Still, such talk may underestimate John Paul's ability to bounce back, as he did after a 1981 assassination attempt, colon-cancer surgery in 1992 and a broken femur in 1994. The next tests of his health will come outside of Rome. The Pope has scheduled a series of foreign trips in the coming months, including a 10-day visit in late July to Canada, Mexico and Guatemala. If he goes ahead with his travels, John Paul may bring along a wheelchair, a prospect that apparently doesn't shame the first Pope to be photographed in a hospital bed. More important than the Pontiff's legs is his mind. And that so far appears sound. Messori, who recently studied the history of papal health, says he has faith "in the protection of the Holy Spirit." Of all the maladies suffered by Popes over the past 2,000 years, he says, there's no record of one with dementia.