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Vatican considers papal trip cuts

PLOVDIV, Bulgaria -- Pope John Paul II's hectic schedule may be cut back because of his ailing health, the Vatican has acknowledged.

It is the first time that the Catholic hierarchy has accepted that the pope -- already the most travelled pope in history -- may have to cut back on his travels.

The admission came at the end of a trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, which ended on Sunday when the pope beatified three priests who were executed by the communist authorities in 1952. (Full story)

Throughout the trip, and especially in Bulgaria, the pope's frail condition has been obvious with him taking one minute to walk 50 feet at one engagement and his aides delivering speeches on his behalf.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls indicated the pope may cancel plans to visit Mexico and Guatemala in July -- at the moment penciled in to follow on from attending World Day of Youth celebrations in Toronto, Canada.

He told reporters on Sunday: "Toronto is clear. In Toronto there will be the World Youth Day. As far as the others are concerned, we'll see.

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"No decision has been made yet. Everything that has been confirmed is confirmed (but) something that has been confirmed can be unconfirmed."

Until now, the only papal trips postponed because of John Paul's health were a 1994 visit to New York after the pontiff broke his leg and a trip to Armenia in 1999, when he came down with the flu.

As recently as Saturday, the Vatican was insisting the pope was coping well with his schedule.

But Bulgarian Orthodox leader Metropolitan Simeon said: "I think the people around him should tell him to stop. Who among us could do what he is doing? No one but him. He is suffering like Christ."

And Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg said: "It was obvious that the pope's mental condition is much better than his physical."

On Sunday the pope looked weak as he sat slumped in a white chair for the three-hour beatification service.

Throughout the trip the pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has used a special cart for transportation.

He flies home to the Vatican on Sunday to prepare for a meeting with President George W. Bush on Tuesday


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