Pope takes a break from Vatican, travels to spa island

Monday, May 6, 2002

ISCHIA, Italy -- After weeks of stress from health problems and sex abuse scandals stinging the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II took a break from the Vatican and traveled to a spa island Sunday in the first of several trips that will test his stamina in the coming months.

John Paul flew by helicopter from Rome to this mountainous island in the Bay of Naples, then was driven past cheering crowds in a "popemobile" with bulletproof glass. But instead of standing up inside the vehicle as he usually does to wave to well-wishers, the pontiff stayed seated and raised his hand weakly in greeting.

His thin white hair tousled by a strong sea breeze, the pope looked pale and weary as he celebrated a dockside Mass.

The widely traveled pontiff had not traveled outside of Rome since January, when he spent a day of prayer in the central hill town of Assisi.

After that outing, the pope canceled or cut back a string of public ceremonies and appearances because of what the Vatican said was arthrosis of the knee.

He also suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease, including a tremor in his hand and slurred speech.

But John Paul spoke hopefully Sunday of more trips and appeared to perk up momentarily at the end of the day at a youth gathering, where he was given a three-foot-long birthday cake in anticipation of his 82nd birthday on May 18.

"For this you need a very youthful appetite!" a beaming John Paul said, amid rounds of "Happy Birthday" in Italian and "O Sole Mio," which the emcee said was one of the pontiff's favorite songs.

John Paul has several trips planned in the coming weeks and months, including visits to Bulgaria and Azerbaijan later in May. This summer he is also expected in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala and his native Poland.

Ischia is famed for its healing thermal waters and mud and its hot springs bubbling up through the Mediterranean. The island draws hundreds of thousands of vacationers each year who hope to cure aches and pains.

Ischia's bishop, Filippo Strofaldi, said on RAI state TV: "It would do the pope good to do a thermal cure for his knee, which sometimes isn't so good. The mud here is miraculous."

Ischia, the first of Italy's many small islands to be visited by this pope, welcomed him warmly. Women hung their finest damask tablecloths from balcony railings. Cooks who were preparing the pope's lunch in the local bishop's headquarters risked losing their tall white hats as they leaned perilously out windows to see the pontiff's arrival.

Some faithful watched the ceremony from a score of boats -- rubber dinghies, row boats and sailboats -- just offshore.

Police boats and fire boats bobbed in the waters as well. Italian news reports said police divers had been searching the waters just offshore for any explosives.

"Your splendid island, destination of a great number of visitors and tourists, knows well the value of welcome," John Paul said in his homily. He said the faithful were called to offer welcome to all, from whatever country or whatever culture they come from."

Seeking to shore up sometimes flagging faith among his flock, John Paul said that "faith accompanied by good works is contagious and radiant."

U.S churchmen who consulted with the pope last month at the Vatican about how to handle the sex abuse scandal dogging the American Church said that the sordid news had weighed heavily on the pope's heart.

In his homily Sunday, John Paul did not mention the scandal, in which numerous American priests have been accused of sexually abusing children or adolescents in parishes and seminaries. Several other countries, including the pope's Poland, have also been rocked by scandals.

On Sunday, John Paul spoke of God's love and pardon in a general sense.

"It's this love that humanity, today perhaps more than ever before, needs, because only love is credible," he said.

"It's the unshakable faith in this love that inspires in the disciples of Christ in every epoch thoughts of peace, throwing open horizons of pardon and harmony."

John Paul also spoke to a few thousand young people in a seaside square and urged them to live out their faith enthusiastically.

But despite resting after lunch, the pope looked even more tired than he did upon his arrival and sounded breathless after each phrase.

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