VATICAN CITY -- Aides wheel him around on a chariot-like cart during ceremonies at the Vatican. They attach a ledger to the arms of his chair to hold the papers of his speeches. They hold him tightly fearing a fall.
Pope John Paul II turns 82 on Saturday, a stooped figure burdened by several health problems and the backlash from the sex abuse scandal rocking his church in the 24th year of his papacy, the longest pontificate since the 1800s.
Despite the physical strain, he has no intention of easing up, especially in his role as the globe-trotting pope -- the "apostle on the move," as Vatican media call him.
"I count on your spiritual support to continue faithfully in the ministry that the Lord entrusted to me," John Paul said Wednesday, responding to birthday greetings from the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square.
Weakened by symptoms of Parkinson's disease and knee and hip problems, John Paul now distributes communion while seated and needs the help of aides to climb even a few stairs. The Vatican -- apparently rejecting the idea the pope should use a wheelchair -- has, used a chariot-like cart at ceremonies.
After arriving May 5 on the Italian island of Ischia, he seemed so drained of energy that he only limply raised a hand to wave to well-wishers lining his route.
But by the end of the day he perked up when young islanders presented him with a 3-foot-long birthday cake. "For this you need a very youthful appetite!" he quipped.
John Paul is planning three more trips abroad in the coming months, signs he still has the strength needed to carry on as leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics. Top officials reject any suggestion that he is no longer in control and should resign.
Some in his church differ.
The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a liberal theologian at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, said John Paul had been inattentive as reports of sex abuse spread through the church.