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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trip Spotlights Struggle of Ailing Pope

GUATEMALA CITY -- At an open-air mass before tens of thousands of worshipers in San Salvador Thursday, 75-year-old Pope John Paul II alternated between looking pained and appearing to doze.

In a brief address to a crowd in the Guatemalan capital's city plaza earlier in the week, aides were forced to help him steady a copy of his speech in his shaking hands. At each airport arrival during his week-long, four-country Latin American tour, his wobbly descent down the stairs from his plane has seemed a herculean physical effort.

During public appearances on his 69th papal trip outside of Italy, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has looked frail and weary. Cameras trained on him for live broadcasts of his appearances frequently have caught his face twisted in winces with his eyes squeezed shut. He has seldom smiled and usually delivers little more than wan waves to the jubilant, screaming hordes who greet his popemobile and turn out for his masses.

When John Paul cut short a trip to the Guatemalan village of Esquipulas on Tuesday, the Vatican denied press reports that the visit was shortened because of the pope's ill health, blaming the schedule changes on bad weather. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls conceded the pope was suffering from jet lag but said he was otherwise in good spirits.

Throughout his tour here, however, the pope's jet lag has been far more in evidence than his good spirits.

His obviously frail appearance, combined with a trip that has shied away from major policy announcements or controversy, has focused much of the public's -- and press' -- attention on his health.

From the moment a pale and exhausted-looking pope edged his way down the steps of the airplane that touched down in Guatemala City Monday afternoon on the first stop on his tour, the people of Central America have seen a much-different man than the vibrant, outspoken pope many of them witnessed on his last visit here 13 years ago.

In the intervening years, the pope has undergone an operation to remove a tumor in his colon in 1992 and a hip replacement after a fall in the shower in 1994. In fact, the pope only recently has begun walking again without a cane. He nearly collapsed during his annual greeting in St. Peter's Square last Christmas. The Vatican later said he had the flu.

Some Vatican officials have described this trip, which has taken the pope to Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador and will end with a visit to Venezuela, as slower paced than the pontiff's previous overseas trips in deference to health considerations.

But watching the pope, often through the up-close unblinking eye of the camera that has televised his every public move all week, Central Americans have witnessed a slow-moving man often struggling to perform the simplest duties.