Holy Father has become the third longest-serving Pontiff in history, writes Freddy Gray THE POPE has officially become the third longestserving Pontiff, having spent 9,286 days as the head of Catholic Church, since his election in 1978.
Scholars disagree as to whether the pontificate should be counted from the day of John Paul II’s election or the day of his ceremonial inauguration. Either way, the Pope overtook Leo XIII at some point between March 9 and March 17, to occupy third place in the list of longest-serving Pontiffs.
Only Pope Pius IX in the 19th century and St Peter, the Apostle chosen by Jesus, have had longer pontificates. Pius IX reigned for 31 years, while St Peter is believed to have led the Church for between 34 and 37 years.
Inevitably, however, the passing of this new milestone was overshadowed by worries about the Pope’s health. Pope John Paul has suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than 10 years, and will be 84 in March.
Those who work with the Pope report that it is only his physical condition that is in decline, insisting that he is mentally as sharp as ever. But, last weekend, Eamon Duffy, a Cambridge history professor and one of England’s leading lay Catholics, voiced concerns about the Pope’s state of mind and a possible vacuum of authority in the Vatican.
In an interview with the BBC, Prof Duffy said: “There are dozens and dozens of popes who have ended their lives rather ill, and there have been a significant number who have ended their lives gaga.
“It hasn’t mattered before, because they were elderly gentlemen confined to a run
down city on the edge of Europe, with relatively little control over the Church. So if you’ve got a Pope who loses his marbles, that’s bad news for Italy, but it doesn’t matter anywhere else.
“But it really does matter now, in a system as centralised as the modern Roman Catholic Church, if the Pope is not in charge.” Dr Ray Chaudhuri, a consultant neurologist, believes that the Pope’s mental faculties are intact, but added that Parkinson’s disease does cause damage to memory and balance.
He said: “Although he does look quite tired at times and the tremor does become visible, the fact that he is still able to function in his public duties says to me that illness is relatively well controlled.
“But one has to balance that by saying that the condition does progress and ageing does accelerate that progression to some extent.” Dr Chaudhuri added that the drugs used to combat Parkinson’s disease can have severe side effects, and the Pope might begin to suffer from visual hallucinations.
The Pope’s exact state of health is difficult to assess because his condition fluctuates. Six months ago, he was so enfeebled by Parkinson’s disease that leading cardinals set about preparing the Catholic faithful for his death.
But, in recent months, Vatican observers have been amazed by his renewed vigour.
He has apparently rediscovered his appetite for travel. There are now plans for visits to Switzerland, Austria, Germany — and one last pilgrimage to Poland.
The Pope has just finished dictating memoirs of his time as a cardinal in Krakow, which will be published shortly. The Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, recently used the word “renaissance” to describe the improvement in the Pope’s health.
However, Prof Duffy, President of Magdalene College, Cambridge, is not convinced.
“He is an old, sick man,” he said. “I imagine if you put a pile of paperwork in front of him, his attention span in dealing with it will be fairly limited.”