WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- The main news from the Vatican as 2003 draws to a close is that Pope John Paul II is alive, though far from well.
In late summer, when he appeared worryingly frail and almost immobile on his visit to Slovakia, senior Vatican prelates were saying that the 83-year-old pontiff was not likely to see 2004. In October, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, was quoted as saying that the pope was "in the last days and months of his life."
Yet at the pre-Christmas ceremonies in St. Peter's Basilica John Paul II was alert, and seemed much improved.
Extreme fluctuations in the pope's health throughout the year have left the world's largest and most powerful Christian institution in a state of uncertainty, and this situation is not likely to improve.
John Paul suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments. Vatican sources say that when he is rested and when his medicine is having effect the pope can remain attentive and engaged. At other times, though, he seems weak and vacant.
"Some individuals who have spoken with him recently have said the meeting was quite productive, but others say he was so weak no business could be done at all," a U.S. cleric with good Rome connections says.
As the pope's condition becomes more unpredictable it is not clear who's in charge of church government. Reliable Vatican sources say the pope has stopped his old practice of scrutinizing and revising drafts of speeches prepared for his delivery by experts. The U.S. cleric says documents on important issues continue to be circulated with the ritual addition, "Seen and approved by the pope." But sometimes, John Paul II has not approved them -- or even seen them.
The pope managed to continue to travel in 2003, racking up his 100th trip (to Croatia) and after that, the one to Slovakia. But a senior Vatican official told United Press International there were no travel plans for 2004 nor were there likely to be. The pope's traveling days are almost certainly over.
Late in the year, he coped well with the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of his election, which made him the fourth longest pontificate if one includes St. Peter the Apostle.
One indication of his vigor when his health is going well was his personal campaign against the U.S.-led Iraq war. He launched a full scale -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- diplomatic effort, sending a senior cardinal to Baghdad and another to Washington with his personal appeal to avoid an armed conflict. His own impassioned pleas, "No more war! No more war!" coming from an old and physically broken man were moving, but equally unsuccessful.
Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's prime minister -- both staunch Bush allies -- paid separate visits to the pope to make the allied case, an indication that, despite his failure, the pope's voice could not be ignored.
At the eleventh hour Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz also came to the Vatican to enlist Pope John Paul's help in trying to stop the invasion from happening.
His other political setback was the Vatican's failure to persuade the European Union to acknowledge Europe's Christian roots in its new constitution.
Once again the pontiff made this a personal effort. According to Vatican analysts, the pope brought up the subject in every audience with a European leader. Again Vatican diplomats went into action, lobbying EU governments to take note of the role of Christianity in shaping Europe's history, culture, and traditions.
By the end of the year major disagreements on key issues among the EU states still blocked ratification of the constitution, and the final decision on the so-called Christianity proposal had not been taken. Even so, European diplomats said the amendment was unlikely to get the required vote. One widely held opposing argument was that if Christianity were to be mentioned, a reference to the influence of Judaism and Islam in Europe should also be included.
Earlier this year, Vatican officials revealed that Pope John Paul was thinking of visiting Mongolia. The news came as a surprise since Mongolia is a predominantly Asian Buddhist country with a Catholic community of no more than 200 souls. But the trip made more sense in the context of the pope's long-standing desire to visit Russia, which had been consistently blocked by the Russian orthodox Patriarch Alexis II.
The pope hoped to make a fueling stop in Kazan, in Russia's Volga region, where he would present to the Russians a historic icon of Our Lady of Kazan, stolen in the 1920s in St. Petersburg and given to the pope in 1993.
In August, the Vatican announced that the Mongolian trip had been canceled. "God did not want it to happen," the pope declared. More precisely, according to reliable Vatican sources, Patriarch Alexis had vetoed the stopover. Without it, the journey made little sense.
The Mongolian trip was Pope John Paul's last hope of setting foot on Russian soil. Reconciliation with the Eastern Orthodox churches separated from Rome since the 13th century has been a major item on Pope John Paul's agenda. He has made progress with other Orthodox communions, but deep differences remain with the Russian church. The Russians accuse Rome of sending missionaries to convert Russia's Orthodox Christians to Catholicism. Despite Vatican denials of the charge, Patriarch Alexis has always refused to receive the pope in Moscow.
Because of the pope's fluctuating health one of the intriguing puzzles of the current Vatican is to determine when a decision has been taken by John Paul himself, and when it comes from the small group of senior Vatican prelates who seem to act on his behalf.
At the center of this group is his private secretary, Bishop Stanislas Dziwisz, who came with him from Poland when he was elected in October 1978. Vatican sources say as the pope's infirmity has increased, so correspondingly has Dziwisz's power, both in the decision making and in protecting the ailing pope.
Senior diocesan clerics can become quite exercised about what they perceive as a dangerous lack of clarity in the present Vatican set-up. Liberal Catholics are particularly disturbed that what one of them called "the Dziwisz inner circle" consists of churchmen with a conservative agenda.
Besides Dziwisz and his group, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, and Cardinal Ratzinger, the conservative head of the Vatican's Congregation of Faith and Morals, are also figures of considerable power and influence.
There is very little doubt that the current state of affairs in the Vatican is getting regressively worse. Vatican sources say that periodically the dosage of the powerful medications that the pope takes, has to be increased to maintain those periods of alertness.
So the issue is not whether the pontiff lives or dies, but what happens when he becomes incapacitated?
Surprisingly, there is no provision in the church for such an eventuality. Any solution must come from Pope John Paul himself. "The pope must by now know all that there is to know about Parkinson's disease, so he must be aware of the situation," said a long time Vatican journalist who has known the pope for 25 years. "From time to time there are rumors that he has drawn up a contingency plan to be put into effect if he is incapacitated. But it is not something the Vatican will ever confirm."
One possible option is that a triumvirate of senior cardinals will take over until his death, or -- more likely -- until new papal elections are held.
The pope, however, shows no signs of planning to step down. He seems to have invested his disabilities with a mystical significance. To him they are a symbol for the suffering of mankind. He believes -- rightly -- that seeing him, a near cripple, still fulfilling his role comforts and encourages the old and the sick who witness it. In his speeches he has referred to himself as being on his own cross.
At the same time he has always had a strong sense of the permanence of his position. Some years ago, the Vatican journalist quoted earlier asked him how he felt at the moment of his election. "Much the same as you did when you got married," the pope replied. "that it was for life."