THE Pope, say those close to him, is tired. People who have spent time with him recently say they found him weaker than they had ever seen him, seemingly too tired to engage with what they were saying.
He no longer meets visiting bishops individually. A few weeks ago he started using a moving platform to spare him the long walk down St Peter’s Basilica.
Benedict turns 85 in the new year, so a slowdown is only natural. And given his age and continued rigorous work schedule, it is remarkable he does as much as he does and is in such good health overall. Last week he confirmed he would travel to Mexico and Cuba next spring.
But a decline has been noted as Benedict prepares for next weekend’s gruelling Christmas celebrations. That raises questions about the future of the papacy given that Benedict has said popes should resign if they cannot do the job.
Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi has said no medical condition prompted the decision to use the moving platform in St Peter’s, and that it is merely designed to spare the pontiff the fatigue of the 100-metre walk to and from the main altar.
However, it seems the daily grind of being Pope – the audiences with visiting heads of state, the weekly public catechism lessons, the sessions with visiting bishops – has taken its toll. A spark is gone. He doesn’t elaborate off-the-cuff much any more, and some days he just seems wiped out.
On his recent visit to Assisi, he travelled by train with dozens of religious leaders from around the world for a day-long peace pilgrimage. For anyone participating it was a tough, long day, but for the aging Pope it was even more so.
“Indeed I was struck by what appeared to me as the decline in Benedict’s strength and health over the last half year,” said Rabbi David Rosen, who sat next to the Pope at the Assisi event as head of interfaith relations at the American Jewish Committee. “He looks thinner and weaker ... which made the effort he put into the Assisi shindig with the extraordinary degree of personal attention to the attendees all the more remarkable,” Rosen said.