Pope prepares for trip to Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico

Friday, July 19, 2002

The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Brushing aside talk of resignation, Pope John Paul II departs for Canada, Guatemala and Mexico next week on a strenuous 11-day trip that will severely test his frail health.

The 82-year-old pope heads Tuesday to Toronto to preside over the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day, an event he began in Rome in 1985 that traditionally draws hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world.

From Toronto, he travels to Guatemala and Mexico for canonization ceremonies, before returning to Rome on Aug. 2.

Global travel has been a hallmark of the Polish-born pope's papacy, and he wants to press ahead with his trips despite the toll they may take on his health. His July trip will be the 97th foreign tour of his nearly 24-year papacy -- and he plans a visit to his native Poland in late August.

John Paul is struggling with the symptoms of Parkinson's disease -- heavily slurred speech and trembling hands -- and is slowed by knee and hip aliments that make it difficult for him to walk or even stand.

Several leading cardinals have broken a taboo and raised the possibility of a papal resignation should he feel he could no longer carry out his ministry. John Paul responded by asking for prayers to give him the strength to continue his mission.

Vittorio Messori, an Italian author who collaborated with John Paul on his best-selling book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," said recently the pope has firmly decided not to retire.

"The force to continue is not my problem but that of Christ, who wanted to call me, though unworthy, to be his vicar on Earth," Messori said in summing up the pope's thoughts. "In his mysterious design, he has brought me here. And it will be he who decided my fate."

The Vatican has made some recent changes to compensate for the pope's weakened condition.

He no longer climbs the stairs of a plane but uses a mechanical lift; aides wheel him to and from ceremonies on a chariot-like cart. He has also reduced his participation in many long, ceremonial Masses.

Before leaving for Canada, John Paul transferred to his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo for a long, quiet stay, for the first time holding his weekly public audience inside the palace to spare him the commute to Rome by helicopter as he has done in the past.

During a visit to Bulgaria in May, he often sat slumped and bent over in his chair and was unable to deliver most of his speeches.

He appeared to be so feeble that two top Vatican officials, Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and chief spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, took the unusual step of publicly suggesting that John Paul might reconsider his July travel plans.

While the Canada stop was firm, the trips to Mexico and Guatemala could be dropped, they said, stressing that the decision would be left to John Paul.

The pope's will to travel won out. The Vatican said the full trip would go ahead, with only a slightly reduced schedule.

Upon arriving in Canada, for example, he will spend several days on secluded Strawberry Island north of Toronto, allowing him time for rest and to get over his jet lag.

The stops in Mexico and Guatemala have been cut to the essentials: The canonization of the Mexican Indian Juan Diego and a beatification ceremony -- both in Mexico City -- and the canonization in Guatemala of 17th-century missionary Pedro de Betancur, known as the "St. Francis of the Americas."

Saint-making has also become a mark of this papacy. John Paul has elevated 462 people to sainthood since 1978 as he seeks out role models for Roman Catholics in the modern world.

John Paul's present condition is in marked contrast to the healthy, vital figure who, at 58, was the youngest pope in 125 years upon his election by the College of Cardinals in 1978.

As the first pope from Poland, he helped bring down communism in eastern Europe. His Polish roots also yielded a doctrinal conservatism that rankled many liberal Roman Catholics.

He has stood fast against artificial birth control, abortion and divorce, sought to close the door on even debating whether women should be admitted as priests in the Roman Catholic Church and opposed any relaxation in the demand that priests be celibate.

Some have pointed to the celibacy requirement as a factor in the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Church in the United States and elsewhere in recent months.

John Paul kept up a tremendous pace since the outset, the first non-Italian in 455 years who quickly made himself the most accessible modern pope.

He was a ready target for a Turkish gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope on May 13, 1981, during a public audience in St. Peter's Square.

He recovered from a wound in the abdomen, but doctors say his body was forever weakened by the shooting.

John Paul has since undergone surgery for what the Vatican said was a benign bowel tumor, a broken leg and a hip replacement and an appendectomy.

The pope fulfilled one his goals when he brought his church of 1 billion adherents into Christianity's third millennium. He marked it by making pilgrimages to the roots of Western faith, the Holy Land and Mt. Sinai.

He sought reconciliation with the Jews and visited a mosque in Syria as part of efforts for better relations with Muslims. He called divisions among Christians a "scandal."

John Paul was born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. By age 20, his only sibling and both parents were dead, and Poland had been occupied by the Nazis.

He was ordained a priest in 1946. He became auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958 and bishop in 1964. Three years later, Pope Paul VI made him a cardinal.

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