SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Closing another chapter of the Cold War, Pope John Paul II began a visit to this former communist country once implicated in a 1981 attempt to kill him and assured the Bulgarian people he has "never ceased" to love them.
The frail 82-year-old pontiff flew in Thursday evening from Azerbaijan, appearing stronger and more alert than at the start of his pilgrimage two days ago.
Far too weak to bend down and kiss the ground -- the traditional blessing whenever the pope visits a country for the first time -- John Paul instead kissed a basket of soil presented at a welcoming ceremony at St. Alexander Nevski Square.
He took a few brisk steps with a cane to a white and gold chair on the square, then stood through the Vatican and Bulgarian anthems, clutching the chair's arms. Later, he sat hunched, occasionally lifting a steady hand to shield his face from the sunshine.
"The president is young, and that's why he's standing. He asked the pope to sit because the pope is old," John Paul quipped in Italian after President Georgi Parvanov's welcome speech.
"With deep joy I come to Bulgaria," he said in a clear voice, drawing cheers from the crowd for speaking in Bulgarian. "I am thankful to Almighty God that he honored me by granting this wish of mine, which I held close to my heart."