Growing concerns over health of Pope

 Amid increasing concerns about the state of his health, Pope John Paul II presided at his general audience in the Vatican today and said that "God willing" he will visit a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Pompeii next week. The increasingly frail 83 year-old pontiff appeared alert as he read his speeches in various languages to a 12,000 strong audience in St Peter's Square. However, the Pope, who has difficulty speaking because of Parkinson's disease, significantly shortened his main, two-page address in Italian. His appearance today follows earlier comments from German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was quoted saying John Paul was "in a bad way" and urged Catholics to pray for him. Those comments, published in German weekly Bunte, came days after the Pope was forced to miss last week's general audience because of what the Vatican described as a mild intestinal ailment. John Paul has a number of engagements planned for this month, centred on the 25th anniversary of his election on 16 October. On Saturday, John Paul is due to holds talks at the Vatican with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The talks are likely to cover the controversial decision of the US Episcopal Church to name its first openly gay bishop. The Pope is also scheduled to celebrate Mass on Sunday on the steps of St Peter's Basilica where he will bestow sainthood on three missionaries.

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