Frail pope begins his 100th foreign pilgrimage in Croatia

Friday, June 6, 2003

RIJEKA, Croatia -- Despite advancing age and ailments, a determined Pope John Paul II began his landmark 100th pilgrimage on Thursday -- a grueling five-day, five-city tour of this ex-Yugoslav republic still struggling with the legacy of war.

Blinking in the afternoon sun, the 83-year-old pontiff was helped by aides into a chair atop a cart, and then was wheeled along a red carpet during the welcoming ceremonies.

He immediately spoke of his pilgrimages -- including two previous visits to Croatia -- that have made him the most traveled pope and kept him on the road for 575 days.

"I thank Almighty God for having allowed me to come back among you on this, my hundredth pastoral visit," John Paul said. He said he brought "heartfelt prayer for peace."

Although his left arm shook and he gulped deep breaths, the pope delivered his arrival speech, in Croatian, in a strong and clear voice. He then boarded a catamaran to cross a bay to Rijeka's harbor, where thousands of cheering pilgrims gathered to greet him.

Earlier, boarding an Alitalia flight in Rome, John Paul was helped by aides onto the special lift he uses to get on and off aircraft. The Italian airline presented the pope with a cake in honor of his 100th trip.

John Paul's trip, which gets into full swing todayz with a visit to the war-battered southern coastal resort of Dubrovnik, will test anew his ability to deal with Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments.

That Vatican aides are worried about John Paul's health was made clear by remarks by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, suggesting that a proposed visit to Mongolia in August could be dropped.

"It's a long way," Sodano told reporters aboard the catamaran, noting the predominantly Buddhist country has only 170 Catholics and no bishop. "It also depends on the condition of the pope."

Despite difficulty walking and standing, John Paul has appeared stronger in recent months, with aides insisting it is due to physical therapy and no "miracle" medicine. "He's not taking papaya seeds," Sodano joked, referring to reports John Paul was following a papaya cure.

The pope expressed his affection for Croatia -- after his native Poland the most Catholic Slavic country -- praising "the ancient Christian roots of this land steeped in the blood of countless martyrs" and referring to the difficulties after a 1991 war for independence from Yugoslavia.

"May those who exercise civil and religious authority never tire of trying to heal the wounds caused by a cruel war and of rectifying the consequences of a totalitarian system that for all too long attempted to impose an ideology opposed to man and his dignity," the pope said.

About 80 percent of Croatia's 4.5 million people are Roman Catholics, and the Vatican was among the first to recognize the country's statehood.

For most Croats, the pope is the highest moral authority. Half a million faithful are expected to attend papal Masses in Rijeka, Dubrovnik, the southern coastal city of Zadar and the eastern cities of Osijek and Djakovo.

Croats "greet you with smiles, joyful hearts and open arms," President Stipe Mesic told the pontiff. "Aware of problems that are the legacy of history, war and our own limitations, we today want to pursue democracy, to build a just society."

Photographs of John Paul are in shop windows and on billboards all over Croatia. Schools were closed in honor of his visit, and many Croats intended to skip work to see him.

Security was tight for the pope's arrival, with automobile traffic restricted in the cities awaiting him, but trains were available free to pilgrims.

"The pope will bring us spiritual peace, and we need it," said Ana Brnabic, a 52-year-old worker.

The pope will find a country caught between its desire to join the West and the lingering nationalism that threatens to keep it isolated.

John Paul said he hopes Croatia's aspiration to join "the great family of the European peoples" will be realized.

Even though scattered fighting ended in 1995, and a pro-Western coalition government took power three years ago, nationalist sentiment remains strong.

War veterans and others oppose the U.N. war crimes tribunal's prosecutions of Croat fighters. Minority Serbs who fled the country in 1995 are not quite welcome back.

Some youngsters carry memorabilia of Croatia's World War II Nazi puppet state. The nationalist party founded by the late President Franjo Tudjman is still supported by about a quarter of the people.

Among the thousands of Croats gathered to greet the pope was Darko Vecerina, a 56-year-old bar owner, who said that "if the pope, so ill, came to see us, the least we can do is to come and greet him here."

And Lidija Skrobonja, a hairdresser, said she came to "spread peace and goodness."

"He's such a good man, a man who doesn't differentiate people by their race, nation or religion and he came to share these views with us."

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