John Paul prays for strength as he leaves native Poland

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

KRAKOW, Poland -- Wiping away a tear as he ended an emotional visit to his native Poland, a frail Pope John Paul II asked his countrymen Monday for their prayers so he can return again before he dies.

"I'm sorry to be leaving," the pope told 30,000 people who saw him off at the airport before he left for Rome. Their response: "Stay with us."

John Paul appeared invigorated by the joyous reception he received during the four-day nostalgic journey tracing his life in Poland.

"Many have waited for my coming. Many have wished to meet me, although not all were able to do so," the pope said in his farewell address. "Maybe next time ..."

"We invite you," the crowd chanted in reply.

The question of whether this would be the pope's final trip to his beloved homeland cast an emotional charge over the visit, the pope's ninth.

Though beset by symptoms of Parkinson's and ailments in his knees and hips that leave him stooped and limited his itinerary to the Krakow region, aides noted the joy the visit brought the 82-year-old pontiff.

"In my personal opinion, the pope will return to Poland," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Monday. "He's in a place that is very dear to him. He has personal links to this place, and his prayer here is very personal and very intense."

Papal commitment

Despite his frailties, the pope brushed aside any notion he might step down while in Poland. Underlining his commitment to carry out his papacy, he prayed for strength to continue his mission during a Mass on Monday at a mountain sanctuary where he used to pray with his father.

"Obtain also for me strength in body and spirit that I may carry out to the end the mission given to me by the risen Lord," the pope said.

He also renewed a request for prayers "when I am alive and after I die," referring for the second time during the trip to his own mortality.

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