"A source very close to the Holy Father assured me that he still hoped to personally return the Mother of God of Kazan icon to the Russian Orthodox Church," the visitor told United Press International Wednesday.
Reconciling Rome with Eastern Orthodoxy -- and especially with the intractable Russian Church -- has been one of the most important ecumenical goals in John Paul's 25-year pontificate. His hope was that handing this priceless work of art to Russian patriarch Alexis II would break the ice between the two denominations.
The visitor said that as a result of detoxification, the "pope's face no longer looked as puffed up as it did during his recent journey to Slovakia." During that trip John Paul could not complete public prayers and sermons, and last week he missed a general audience, apparently due to intestinal problems that may have been related to the detoxification process.
John Paul receives medication for a host of health problems, including Parkinson's. But this has not impeded his intellectual faculties. "When I was there, the Holy Father spoke lucidly, though haltingly, in various languages," UPI's informant said.
Still, the decline in the pope's health is "causing great nervousness in the Vatican," as one observer phrased it. "He is in very poor health," Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, this week told Bunte, a German magazine.
But Georg Gaenswein, the cardinal's private secretary, hastened to add that at least mentally the pontiff kept going, despite his ailments. "He can't walk anymore; he can't stand upright, but he is a hero to the faithful. Not giving up despite his illness makes him even more credible."
Clearly, the decision to name 30 more cardinals -- plus an anonymous one "in pectore" (in the pope' heart) -- earlier than planned is seen as an indication that John Paul II himself may not expect to live that much longer. The new princes of the Church were to be installed next February. Now this will happen on Oct. 21, following the celebration of the 25th anniversary of his election.
Several months ago, the pope was reported to have said, "My successor is not even a cardinal yet." Presumably, his preferred candidate is among the 30 prelates about to be raised to that rank. Although it is futile to speculate whom the 120 cardinal-electors will choose to follow John Paul II to the throne of St. Peter, Vatican observers feel that the next pope, who would also be bishop of Rome, ought to be an Italian.
One possible candidate, they say, could be archbishop Angelo Scola, 62, patriarch of Venice and former rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, a specialist on the family, which has been one of John Paul's foremost preoccupations during his pontificate.
But Vatican observers warn not to jump to conclusions. "There is, however, a consensus among the cardinals that the next pope must possess the willpower and the ability to put the Church's house in order," one insider said.
"They are exasperated with the mess especially in the American Church," he went on, "they are disgusted with the inflation of marriage annulments, and the moral relativism of U.S. and Western European Catholics."
According to Vatican sources, there is a chance the conclave, or electoral college, might draft a hesitant Cardinal Ratzinger, 76, as "interim pope." Ratzinger, a German and currently the Polish pope's closest confidant, is probably the most powerful theological mind in the Catholic church.
Others in Rome consider Cardinal Francis Arinze, 71, a strong-willed Nigerian with a command of at least five languages, a potential pope. Arinze, who heads the papal Congregation for Liturgy, is one of the curia's leading experts on the dialogue with Islam -- and evidently very aware of the Western and specifically American Church's problems.
Earlier this year, this African prelate, whose home continent is currently the world's major source of Christian renewal, came to Washington to read Americans the riot act. As commencement speaker at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, he shocked students and faculty by saying:
"In many parts of the world, the family is under siege. It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."
One professor angrily walked off the stage. Seventy faculty members signed a letter of protest. There was uproar among the graduates but also a general consensus later among many readers of his speech that this prince of the Church knew what he was ailing Western Christianity.