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SQUELCHING RUMORS OF PAPAL ILLNESS March 25, 1996

VATICAN (CWN) -- Reacting to the latest series of rumors swirling around the Vatican, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a written statement today, indicating that Pope John Paul II has undergone regular examinations, which detect no sign of cancer remaining in his body.

The extraordinary official statement came after a Spanish journalist-- who, Navarro-Valls pointed out, could not cite any supporting evidence-- proclaimed that the Holy Father is suffering from cancer. The rumor mill, which has been grinding out such reports frequently since the Pope had a tumor removed from his intestine, became much more active in March after the Pope missed an audience because of what Vatican officials have insisted was a routine intestinal ailment.

After issuing his written report, Navarro-Valls followed up with an oral report to the Vatican press corps. He pointed out that after working for several days at a reduced schedule, the Holy Father has resumed his usual hectic pace. The Vatican press office released plans that call for a March 26 trip to Siena, a full schedule of liturgical events during Holy Week, and an April 14 trip to Tunis. Tomorrow, the same office promises to unveil plans for a papal trip to Slovenia.

In a rebuke to Father Pedro Miguel Lamet, the Spanish reporter who claimed that the Pope's illness is "well known in the Vatican," Navarro-Valls said, "credibility is based on using the proper sources, whether or not they are cited. In this case, no accurate source is given."

Father Lamet, a regular correspondent for the Spanish daily Diario 16, had published a Sunday column in which he asserted: "What has been in doubt for several months is now a certainty; it is no secret to anyone in the Roman Curia that John Paul II is suffering from cancer, probably of the colon, with complications from Parkinson's disease."

Father Lamet had added that such an illness would progress slowly, and could allow the Holy Father to live some years-- even to realize the prediction of the late Polish Cardinal Wyszynski that he would lead the Church into the 21st century.

Father Lamet had claimed two years ago that the Pope suffers from Parkinson's disease. That claim, too, has been denied by the Vatican. Although the visible trembling in the Holy Father's left hand could be taken as a symptom of Parkinson's disease, Navarro-Valls explained it is due to nerve damage suffered in the attempted assassination of 1981.

The substance of Father Lamet's report was not new; similar stories have circulating in Rome for many months. But this high-profile story guarantees that the Pope will be closely watched in the coming weeks, with reporters looking for any sign of weakness.

The first such report came from members of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, who were invited to dinner with the Holy Father last week. Several members of that group, abandoning the usual discretion that is expected after such visits, said that the Holy Father appeared perfectly healthy.