Suffering pope summons strength to honor victims of communism

Saturday, September 13, 2003

BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia -- He was clearly suffering -- unable to walk and speaking with difficulty -- but Pope John Paul II rallied enough to greet thousands of faithful Friday and pay tribute to victims of the "dark days" of communism.

Battling his ailments, the pope pushed ahead with his Slovak pilgrimage, looking more alert than on his arrival 24 hours earlier.

The 83-year-old pope, who is struggling with Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments, presided over a two-hour Mass for pilgrims braving a chilly drizzle in the central city of Banska Bystrica.

Speaking in Slovak in a shaky and sometimes slurred voice, the pontiff thanked God that "he allowed me another apostolic trip in the name of Christ."

But after beginning his homily by greeting the crowd, which chanted, "Let the Holy Father live!," John Paul asked Cardinal Jozef Tomko to read most of the rest before finishing the last few lines himself.

"Your visit is extremely precious for us because you come to us with weakened health -- with much strain and bearing a cross," Bishop Rudolf Balaz said in welcoming John Paul.

Although the pope's visit got off to a rough start Thursday, when he failed to get through his arrival remarks for the first time in 102 foreign trips, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the trip "absolutely" would continue.

The Polish-born pope's fierce anti-communism stance is credited with helping to end communist rule across Eastern Europe.

At Friday's Mass, John Paul sat under a yellow canopy and faced a symbol of the city: a statue of the Virgin Mary that was removed before a visit by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 and returned to the square only after communism collapsed here in 1989.

John Paul referred to the statue in his homily, saying the site "recalls the attempt to profane" Christianity that was "perpetrated by a bleak regime of not so many years ago."

Later, in an address to bishops, the pope said he was delighted at the progress of the Slovak church "after the dark days of persecution and silence."

John Paul's determination inspired the sick in Banska Bystrica, about 120 miles east of the capital, Bratislava. Several ailing people who had planned to stay in bed during the pope's stop said they decided to attend the Mass after all to pray for, and encourage, the pontiff.

"Ordinary people couldn't even move if they were this sick, and he travels such a great distance," said Veronika Biresova, a 61-year-old retiree.

The pilgrimages have become increasingly difficult. John Paul was supported by aides when he got out of his Lancia limousine at Bratislava airport, then transferred to a lift to board the plane that flew him to Banska Bystrica.

John Paul's spokesman said he would not rule out further papal travel. The Vatican is considering trips next year to Austria, Switzerland and Poland, although none has been confirmed.

"We think at least some, if not all, of these trips will go forward," Navarro-Valls said.

Asked whether the Slovakia trip would be the pope's last, Cardinal Tomko said: "How can you say what is the last with John Paul II? That is very difficult to say because he has his own surprises. We are all in the hands of God, and also him."

When Slovakia came under communist rule in 1948, the church endured intense persecution. Priests were ordained in secret and hundreds were imprisoned or sentenced to forced labor by a regime that confiscated all church property.

The church's sufferings have figured prominently in the pope's visit, which was expected to draw half a million faithful from Slovakia and neighboring countries. On Sunday, the pope will beatify as martyrs a bishop and a nun who were jailed and tortured in the 1950s.

Reaching out to Slovakia, which joins the European Union next year, the pope again urged Europeans to reaffirm traditional family values in the face of materialism, liberal abortion laws and growing legal recognition of homosexual unions.

He called on parents to educate their children in the faith. "The family is the nursery where the little plants, the new generations, are nurtured. In the family, the future of the nation is forged," he said.

Nearly seven in 10 of Slovakia's 5.4 million people are Catholics, and tens of thousands have lined the papal motorcade routes.

"We could not miss such an opportunity to see him," said Peter Goelia, 33, who came to Mass with his wife and two daughters. "Maybe it's the last time."

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