Originally created 02/28/05

Surgery imposes silence on pope

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II has spent a lifetime savoring the spoken word: as a young amateur actor, as a linguist with command of a dozen languages, and as pontiff, preaching in far-flung churches, airfields and stadiums. Now he is keeping silent on doctors' orders.

A tracheotomy to ease a breathing crisis has stilled his voice. For the first time in his 26-year pontificate, John Paul missed Sunday prayers, though he delighted many of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics with a surprise appearance from a hospital window.

The 84-year-old John Paul did not speak during his brief appearance at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic hospital, where he is being treated for his second breathing crisis in less than a month.

But an Italian cardinal urged people to remember that speaking "is just sound, it's not the voice of the heart."

"The pope will speak now with his silence," Cardinal Ersilio Tonini was quoted as saying in Il Messaggero newspaper.

In old age, the pope's words have been slurred, and his sentences have been punctuated with small gasps - symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Winded easily, John Paul has often had to listen from his wheeled throne as his speeches are read out by aides.

Yet John Paul is the pope with the largest reach in history, having visited 129 countries. He is considered the first pontiff to master the medium of television, and he broadcast live on the Internet.

Church officials say he has sent a message of dignity, courage and acceptance of life's trials by remaining in the public eye despite his declining health.

Crowds, especially youth groups, seem to rejuvenate him. Audiences often burst into encouraging applause when his voice falters - a sign that one Italian communications specialist sees as a powerful interaction between the pope and the people.

"His illness and the signs of his suffering have appeared as new formats of communication," Mario Morcellini of Rome's La Sapienza University wrote in Il Messaggero.

For now, the pope is communicating with aides through written messages. Il Messaggero reported that the pope was said to have tried a few vocal exercises Saturday. The Associated Press could not immediately confirm the report.

It is unclear how long the pope's breathing tube will remain in his neck - but even if the tube stays there permanently, there is no grave danger and the pope likely would regain the ability to talk in about a week after a switch to a tube with a speaking valve, medical experts say.

The pope's love of public speaking stretches back to his youth, when he joined an underground resistance group called the Rhapsodic Theater during Poland's Nazi Occupation.

In his book "Get Up, Let Us Go," John Paul recalled his passion for theater and being told he would have been a "great actor," but he said the suffering around him during World War II led him to abandon a career on the stage.

As pope, John Paul has not shied away from performing. He has posed wearing feathered headgear in Kenya and holding a koala in Australia.

Besides his command of a dozen languages, the pope has trained himself to deliver sermons and greetings in a couple dozen more, including Japanese and Swahili. Some of his most memorable speeches pressed for religious freedom in the Soviet bloc or denounced U.S. plans to invade Iraq in 2003.

In 1979, at the height of John Paul's vigor, he made a whirlwind trip to the United States, preaching to crowds in New York's Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden. At the time, Time magazine's cover story dubbed him "John Paul Superstar."


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