Pope Benedict XVI is one busy octogenarian. The 84-year-old recently wrapped up the seventh Christmas season of his pontificate, announcing tours of Mexico and Cuba in 2012, even as the Vatican denied the aging Pope’s health is declining. But while the signs of increasing frailty are undeniable, the pontiff still wields an undeniable influence. Ahead of Benedict’s visit to Cuba in March, President Raúl Castro announced his government would release 2,900 inmates, some of them political prisoners, as a “humanitarian gesture.” Castro said he had “taken into account” the upcoming papal visit, the first since John Paul II toured Cuba in 1998, as well as requests by relatives of prisoners and Roman Catholic bishops in Cuba.
During his Christmas Eve homily at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Benedict was certainly in fighting form, decrying the “superficial glitter” and commercialism of the Christmas season. And in his Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the city and the world”) address, he called for an end to violence in Syria, “where so much blood has already been shed.” Addressing thousands of worshippers from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the Pope also urged “full reconciliation and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and called for “the resumption of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.”
But the Pope also appeared noticeably thin and tired, a fragility that has recently attracted media attention as the Vatican seeks to accommodate his advancing age. In 2009, the Vatican announced the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass would be moved forward two hours to 10 p.m. “to ease the Pope’s fatigue.” This December, ushers wheeled Benedict, who reportedly suffers from arthritis in his legs, up the central aisle of St. Peter’s on a mobile platform. The New York Times reported that during Christmas Day mass, Benedict’s voice “occasionally wavered” and was “interrupted at times by a dry cough.”
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told Agence France-Presse that the mobile platform is meant to conserve the Pope’s strength, but insisted that Benedict paces himself and doesn’t have any particular ailments: “For an old man, he’s in excellent shape.” The platform also allows more people to see the Pope and guards against attacks. On Christmas Eve 2009, a woman jumped the barricade at St. Peter’s and grabbed Benedict’s vestments, pulling him to the ground as security guards tackled her.