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Pope suffers from Parkinson's, cardinal acknowledges

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 18, 2003

VATICAN CITY - A top Vatican official acknowledged Saturday what many observers have long suspected - that Pope John Paul II suffers from Parkinson's disease. He said the pontiff's prayers helped him cope with the degenerative neurological disorder.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, made the comments in an interview with the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera on the eve of the pope's 83rd birthday. It was the first time a top Vatican official had publicly acknowledged the pontiff suffers from Parkinson's.

"If we want to look for the secret weapon that has allowed him to beat the years and Parkinson's, we must look to prayer: He puts himself in the hands of God and feels God and the Madonna by his side in the path of life," Re was quoted as saying.

The Vatican has never officially attributed the source of the pope's trembling hands and slurred speech, typical symptoms of Parkinson's. Vatican officials have cited the pope's need for privacy as the reason they have not described his physical condition.

Re's remark was not a formal announcement by the Vatican and appeared to have been a slip during the course of an interview. The Italian media largely ignored it, primarily because it has been so widely assumed that the pontiff had Parkinson's.

Vatican officials said they had no comment on Re's remarks.

The cause of Parkinson's is unknown, but it results from the degeneration of nerve cells that produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is needed to control muscle activity.

The pontiff also has crippling knee and hip ailments which have made it virtually impossible for him to walk. Yet he has kept up his public appearances, using a trolley to get around the Vatican and a hydraulic chair to celebrate Mass while seated.

Despite his age and ailments, John Paul has appeared remarkably well in recent months - stronger, more animated and speaking more clearly. The Vatican has attributed the improvements to rest and physical therapy.

The pontiff also has kept up a vigorous work schedule and is due to make his 100th foreign trip in June, to Croatia.

"I can't say where his spirit finds the strength to overcome the body's weakness, but it's evident that in this birthday he is more serene, you can say stronger compared to a year ago," Cardinal Pio Laghi, a papal peace envoy, told Corriere.

The pope plans to celebrate his 83rd birthday today with a Mass joined by his fellow Poles and by elevating four Catholics to sainthood.

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