Pope John Paul II

updated 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Be not afraid!" he counsels in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, his new collection of spiritual musings. "Do not be afraid of God; do not be afraid of the truth about ourselves; and do not be afraid of man's weakness or his grandeur!"

Words to live by—as Pope John Paul II has done. Since his 1978 installation, Poland's Karol Wojtyla, the first non-Italian pope in nearly five centuries, has seemed unacquainted with fear. He bounced back to nonstop speaking engagements after a 1981 assassination attempt, confronted the wrath of the Communist party to help end the Cold War and stands firm in the face of continuing criticism of his conservatism on issues like abortion and divorce. ("Unlike politicians," points out Carl Bernstein, author of a John Paul II biography-in-progress, "he's not reading the ratings.")

But this year, trepidation must have touched his heart. In November 1993, John Paul tripped during a Vatican audience, dislocating his shoulder and fracturing his arm; last April, with those injuries still healing, he fell again and broke his thighbone. He appeared gray and shaky during public appearances, and reports began to seep out of the Vatican that his health was seriously declining. In September, the man who delights in mingling with his flock canceled his scheduled trip to the United States.

For the millions who adore him, news of the 74-year-old pope's ill health provoked sadness—and, apparently, an urge to buy his book. (The media-savvy pontiff must surely have been amused to find himself alongside Home Improvement's Tim Allen atop best-seller lists.) Vatican watchers began wondering aloud if he might consider resigning—a drastic step last taken by Celestine II in 1124. "I can't visualize that," says Tad Szulc, author of another forthcoming John Paul biography. "He's a very tough guy. He once told someone, 'There is no place in Rome for a pope emeritus.' "

What John Paul himself is really thinking only his intimates in the cloistered Vatican can tell. But he may be following his own courageous counsel even in the face of death: On Nov. 16 he announced that he has scheduled a visit to five Asian countries in January.

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