Ailing pope embarks on four-day visit to Slovakia

Friday, September 12, 2003

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Drawn and trembling, Pope John Paul II struggled to greet Slovaks on Thursday as he began a grueling four-day visit that tested his age and ailments.

The frail 83-year-old pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments, appeared short of breath and read his arrival remarks in a slurred voice.

Just one paragraph into the speech, he lost his place and asked an aide to read most of the rest before finishing the last paragraph himself, correcting himself several times for stumbling on words. On other foreign visits, aides have read portions of his speeches for the pope, but never his arrival texts.

"Although the pope wanted to continue to read, I think it's logical to ease his burdens," papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said later.

As in recent appearances, John Paul remained seated in a throne-like chair wheeled by aides. It took him 20 minutes to disembark from the papal plane.

Five thousand police officers and 500 special guards were deployed nationwide to secure the pope and his entourage during the trip, his third visit to the ex-communist country and the 102nd foreign pilgrimage of his papacy.

Reaching out to Slovakia, which joins the European Union next year, the pope touched on what has become a recurrent theme: a plea to Europeans to resist materialism and reaffirm traditional Roman Catholic family values.

"In the near future, your country will become a full member of the European community," John Paul said at Bratislava's airport.

"Dearly beloved, bring to the construction of Europe's new identity the contribution of your rich Christian tradition." Do not be satisfied with the sole quest for economic advantages. Great affluence, in fact, can also generate great poverty."

Cautioning that it would take "sacrifices and difficulties," he called on Slovaks to build "a society respectful of human life in all its expressions that promotes the family as a place of reciprocal love and growth of persons, that seeks the common good and is attentive to the needs of the weakest."

Later, the pope met with President Rudolf Schuster and thanked him for recently vetoing legislation that would have formalized the country's abortion laws, a measure that triggered intense debate and a political crisis in the country. Church teaching forbids abortion.

When the pope arrived, he was greeted by Schuster, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and cheering well-wishers waving banners that read, "We love you." The crowd included gay and lesbian activists protesting what they contend is the church's growing intrusion in public and private life.

One demonstrator held a banner which read: "I have a different opinion -- will you burn me?"

The church in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation suffered intense persecution under communism, which ended in 1989, and its sufferings were sure to figure prominently in the pope's visit.

Many priests were ordained in secret, and hundreds were imprisoned or sentenced to forced labor by a regime that confiscated all church property. This weekend, the pope will beatify as martyrs a bishop and a nun who were jailed and tortured in the 1950s.

Beatification is the last step before possible sainthood.

Organizers said they expected up to a half-million of the faithful from Slovakia and neighboring countries to attend open-air papal Masses in the capital, Bratislava, the central city of Banska Bystrica and the eastern city of Roznava.

On Thursday evening, after audiences with the president and prime minister and their wives, John Paul was to pray at the cathedral in the western city of Trnava, known locally as "Little Rome" for the devotion of its residents.

Police with bomb-sniffing dogs swept through the church earlier this week, and authorities said they were investigating a death threat made against the pope.

"We have no worries because of it. We are convinced that the pope's visit will be secure," said Marian Gavenda, spokesman for the Conference of Slovak Bishops.

Seven in 10 of Slovakia's 5.4 million people are Catholics, and although there were almost no billboards or posters promoting the pope's visit, there was an air of expectation.

"Under communism, I was a math teacher and I couldn't go to church. I'd be fired if they found out," said Elena Boncova, a 79-year-old retiree, bursting into tears at the memory. "But now I go -- and I'm really looking forward to the pope's visit."

The pope first visited here in 1990, a year after communism crumbled in then-Czechoslovakia, and returned in 1995, two years after the Czech Republic and Slovakia became independent states. He visited Croatia and Bosnia this summer.

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