On Thursday the 83-year-old figurehead of the Roman Catholic church received two political leaders, an ambassador, two nuncios and about 100 bishops, while planning yet more trips abroad.

Concerns over the pope's health increased considerably during last week's four-day trip to Slovakia, the 102nd foreign trip of his 25-year pontificate, when he often appeared frail and exhausted.

But despite his ailments, in particular the debilitating Parkinson's disease, the pope is already planning more foreign trips in 2004, Vatican sources said.

Globetrotter

Not to be deterred, the 83-year-old pontiff has asked his aides to prepare five more trips next year. Austria, France, Mexico, Poland and Switzerland have all been put forward, the sources said.

"Let him travel, that is what life is all about for him," said a high-ranking prelate who asked not be named.

In the meantime, the pope has taken on more daily duties, resting only one day after his return from Slovakia on Sunday.

By Tuesday, it was already business as usual as he received a delegation of 10 bishops from Uganda at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo just southeast of Rome.

The pope returned to the Vatican City the following day for his weekly general audience but was back in Castel Gandolfo for long series of audiences on Thursday.

The day started with an audience with Norway's Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik and his family, followed by a visit from Lebanon's parliamentary president Nabih Berri with whom he discussed the Middle East conflict.

Greeting the faithful at Castel Gandolfo

According to Vatican sources, the pope was on relatively good form and followed up the first two meetings with three audiences granted to Luxembourg's ambassador to the Vatican and the papal ambassadors to the United States and Senegal.

The pontiff rounded off his diplomatic duties by receiving about 100 recently-named bishops from around the world who were in Rome for a study seminar.

October is scheduled to be just as busy.

Saint of Calcutta

Major events are planned for the period of 16 to 19 October to mark the 25th anniversary of his election to the pontificate on 16 October, 1978. Three hundred church leaders are due in Rome, among them the 166 cardinals who elect the pope.

On 19 October the pontiff will celebrate a mass to beatify Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

He is also due to receive three presidents during October - from East Timor, Lithuania and Uruguay - the foreign ministers of Australia and Lebanon as well as the leader of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

The only journey planned in the immediate future is a visit to Pompeii near Naples in southern Italy on 7 October to pray at a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary.