Pope Benedict XVI's use of a rolling platform at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday resulted in natural speculation about the pontiff's health.
Not since Pope John Paul II, when he was suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, has the device been used to transport the Pontiff up the aisle of the basilica.
To pre-empt the expected media chatter, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a short communiqué shortly before the Mass began, saying the measure was taken to “reduce fatigue” and to offer him better protection against potential assailants.
“The purpose is exclusively to alleviate the efforts of the Holy Father, as already happens with his use of the Popemobile during entrance processions in outdoor ceremonies and in St. Peter's Square,” Fr. Lombardi said.
He stressed there was no “medical reason” for Pope Benedict using the platform, and that “nothing else should be read into the general state of his health, which is good.”
Indeed, for an 84-year-old man who would normally have long since retired, the Holy Father remains remarkably vigorous, as many observed during his grueling visit to Germany last month.
He embarks on another overseas papal trip Nov. 18-20, this time taking a 4-hour flight to Benin to deliver an important document on the Catholic Church in Africa.
Before that, on Oct. 27, the Pope is to host a third World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi which will draw together heads of all the world's major religions as well as nonbelievers.
The Pope will travel by papal train to the event, which will include representatives from over 50 nations and marks the 25th anniversary since John Paul II held the first gathering.
Yet despite managing a punishing schedule of engagements, the Pope is aware his faculties are not what they used to be.
“I notice that my forces are diminishing,” he told Peter Seewald in his interview for the book "Light of the World" last year. “Thank God there are many co-workers. Everything is developed and implemented in a common effort. I trust that our dear Lord will give me as much strength as I need to be able to do what is necessary.”
Shortly before his recent trip to Germany, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger remarked that the Pope was as “normal as ever” but that age was “gradually catching up with him.” “Walking appears more difficult,” noted the Pope's 87-year-old brother.
“The voice has become somewhat quieter but mentally he shows no deterioration,” he added.
The Pope's health has rarely been a cause for concern, and any real scares took place before he was elected in 2005. As a cardinal he suffered a minor stroke in Sept. 1991 and, while on holiday in the Alps in Aug. 1992, he fell and struck his head against a radiator. In 2009, again on holiday in the Alps, he slipped and broke his wrist. Yet none of these incidents left any lasting damage.
The key to his longevity, according to both himself and those close to him, is not exercise so much as keeping to a busy, disciplined routine.
“One must organize one's time correctly,” he told Seewald, “and make sure one gets enough rest so that then one is suitably alert at the times when one is needed. In short: so that one follows the rhythm of the day in a disciplined way and knows when one will need energy.”
Asked if he uses an exercise bike given by his doctor, he replied. “No, I don't get to it at all.” “So the Pope thinks like Churchill: 'No sports!'” countered Seewald. “Yes!” Benedict XVI replied.
The Mass on Sunday was dedicated to a “new evangelization” of predominantly Western society which is falling away from its Christian faith and culture. During the ceremony, the Pope announced a special “Year of Faith” in response to what he called a “profound crisis of faith that has affected many people” and left them searching for answers.
The “Year of Faith” will begin in Oct. 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and conclude in Nov. 2013.
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