The Pope Comes Home

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II has returned to the Vatican, but with a work schedule curtailed and his public appearances reduced.

The Holy Father has been advised to rest and minimize meeting people from outside his own sphere because doctors warn that he is liable to infection. A tube that remains inserted into his trachea heightens the risk.

So for the time being, John Paul II is spending most of his days in a 300-square-foot room on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace. And it will not be too dissimilar to the clinical surroundings of his suite at the Gemelli hospital. The room, divided into two by a screen, is austere and simply consists of a large bed, an armchair and a table.

At the Pope’s bedside is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a small crucifix and only a few pictures: one of his parents and another of Cardinal Adam Sapieha, one of his greatest influences while he studied in a clandestine seminary in Krakow. Although he is expected to remain in this room for long periods, he is also likely to spend a good deal of time praying in his private chapel a short distance away.

Round-the-Clock Care

He is accompanied by a team of the finest doctors: a specialist in anesthesia, a cardiologist, an expert in neuroscience and problems related to Parkinson’s disease. They are coordinated by Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the Pope’s physician. In this ascetic environment equipped with medical aides, oxygen and respiratory devices, they are able to monitor him 24 hours a day, supplying him with antibiotics and other medicines and ensuring in particular that all breathing devices are kept clean and free of infection.

Particularly consoling for John Paul is the presence of his so-called “family” of devoted helpers: his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislav Dziwisz, his second secretary Don Mietek, and Angelo Gugel (who with “great devotion” helps the Holy Father to shave, get dressed and transport him to the chapel). There is also the “precious presence” of nurse Sister Tobiana, the “mother” of the group of Polish sisters who care for the Holy Father.

Archbishop Dziwisz, who leads the group, is never far away, residing in a fourth-floor apartment that is connected to the Pope’s chambers by a spiral staircase.

Each day after breakfast, John Paul has a medical check, and undergoes rehabilitation exercises for breathing and speech. Before the crisis in February, he underwent exercises to counteract the progressive increase of rigidity in his facial muscles brought on by Parkinson’s.

The Pope is expected to continue with these exercises, but this time will have to train himself, one hour a day, to acquire sufficient strength to speak with a tube inserted into his trachea. He is also expected to undergo some kind of physiotherapy necessary for his muscles and circulation.

Another challenge will be food. His long-serving cook, Sister Germana, who is said to have excellent culinary skills, will have to defer to doctors at the Gemelli to know what and how to prepare appropriate dishes for the pontiff.

It is no secret that the Pope’s doctors would have preferred him to stay in hospital for a few days more and reluctantly gave their consent. The Holy Father reportedly reasoned that if he could leave so soon, then why, with Holy Week fast approaching, should he have to stay a day longer. So the doctors allowed him to leave on the condition that he takes plenty of rest, is very cautious in his contacts with others, and ensures that audiences have are kept to a minimum.

Holy Week

It is not clear if the Pope will attend some or any of the many engagements scheduled for Holy Week. His traditional presiding over the Via Crucis on Good Friday at the Colosseum will instead be carried out by cardinals, as yet unnamed. An earlier suggestion, to hold it in St. Peter’s Square, was scrapped.

However, the Holy Father is understood to want to attend the Good Friday ceremony if health permits and the weather is favorable.

If that is the case, then a gazebo is likely to be erected to protect the Pope from the evening’s humidity. If the opposite is the case, he is likely to follow the proceedings via television from his room where he will be visible to the crowds via large television screens.

Making positive use of the media has been one hallmark of John Paul’s papacy, and as his pontificate begins this new phase, the use of videoconference technology is likely to become a frequent and valued asset in helping the Holy Father to continue in his mission to proclaim the Gospel.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.