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Vatican Denies Pope Had Dizzy Spell

January 12, 1998

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ As he prepared to lead a baptism ceremony Sunday, Pope John Paul II lurched forward and had to be helped briefly by an assistant.

The Italian news agency ANSA cited witnesses as saying that the pope _ who has suffered from increasingly frail health _ had a dizzy spell before quickly recovering.

The incident came just 10 days before the pope is to make a historic and taxing visit to Cuba.

The agency did not elaborate on how the witnesses reached their conclusion. The Vatican denied the claims.

RAI state TV showed the 77-year-old pontiff pause Sunday as he walked up the center of the Sistine Chapel, wipe his eyes and seem to be momentarily weak as he tightly gripped his pastoral staff.

Then he began to fall forward and was immediately supported by the arm of one of the prelates in his entourage.

The pope later appeared strong as he led the nearly two-hour Mass and service. When he gave his customary noon blessing to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, he seemed in good humor as he joked about the sunny weather.

In the annual ceremony Sunday, John Paul baptized 19 babies, including Italians, Poles, Mexicans and a Brazilian.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls called the report about the dizzy spell ``absurd.″

``I was there. He didn’t have a dizzy spell,″ the spokesman said.

The pope has walked with difficulty since having hip surgery a few years ago. ``He hobbles. Sometimes he has to lean on his staff,″ Navarro-Valls said.

The pontiff’s Jan. 21-25 visit to Cuba _ where about 85 percent of the population was nominally Roman Catholic before Castro took power in 1959 _ has generated tremendous excitement.

But many are worried about his increasingly frail health. Cardinal Jaime Ortega said recently that the pope’s trip to Cuba _ the only Latin American country he has not visited _ will require ``a great effort″ because of the pontiff’s age and illness. John Paul is scheduled to say Mass in four Cuban cities.

In 1981, the pope was shot in the abdomen by a Turkish gunman, and a lengthening series of ailments have started to take their toll in recent years. He had surgery for a colon tumor in 1992, for a broken leg in 1994 and for an inflamed appendix in October 1996.

In addition to walking with difficulty, the pontiff has a marked tremor in his left hand and slurred speech, which many believe are symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

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