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Ending Sicilian Trip, Pope Is Dauntless Despite Disability : Religion: Forced to use a cane, the pontiff wields it with verve. He seems to be saying he'll keep traveling.

November 07, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYRACUSE, Italy — Pope John Paul II wound up a three-day visit to Italy's island of history and crime in this Sicilian city Sunday with a clear message--to himself and to the 950 million members of the Roman Catholic Church he heads:

Have cane, will travel.

Still recovering from a broken right leg he suffered in the spring that has cramped his style and sapped his strength, John Paul made the Sicilian visit a test of his reduced capabilities.

He found that he can live with them. And he obviously believes that he can do so without sacrificing the pastoral trips that are his trademark as history's most-traveled pontiff.

The Pope was his usual high-minded, full-throated self as he continued the Mafia-bashing that was the gist of his visit to the island where the mob was born.

And he was sharp-witted in feeling-good ad libs that sometimes seemed addressed less to Sicilian listeners than to the mourners-in-waiting back in Rome who have already written off this papacy.

Along the way, the short black cane he once used with diffident distaste was transformed from a sign of weakness to a symbol of determination.

When he arrived in Sicily on Friday, John Paul seemed frail and uncertain on his feet. But after two days of appearances tailored to a man who now has to sit more than he used to, the Pope displayed a renewed self-confidence that was accompanied by self-mocking irreverence.

He told one crowd not to bother buying a book of his reflections that is a bestseller in Italy. "It's not a book; it's an interview," he said. Explaining the brevity of a speech to young people here, John Paul said, "I don't want to sound like an old man who talks too much."

And speaking of a planned visit to a World Youth Day meeting in Manila in January that has seemed a papal long shot after last month's cancellation for health reasons of a visit to the United States, John Paul teased a crowd in Catania on Friday, "Do you have your ticket?"

He returned to the theme Saturday, speaking in high good humor to young people after delivering a get-with-it speech he had brought with him from the Vatican.

"I am preparing for a meeting in Manila," he said. "I'm going to Manila with my cane. I think I'll get there.

"Some say the cane has made me older," the Pope said to shouts of "No!" from the crowd. "But others say it has rejuvenated me." The crowd roared, "Yes!"

"I am happy to see that you are pro-cane and not anti-cane," the 74-year-old Pope smiled, waving the cane with a practiced sense of theatrics.

What John Paul seemed to be saying is that while he needs the cane, he does not intend to let it curtail his travels--or, implicitly, his reign.

Just as certainly, in his travels there will be concessions to age and infirmity: In Sicily, John Paul sat more at Mass, blessing the gifts and reading the homily from his throne.

To see and be seen, he appeared in Catania on the balcony of the archbishop's palace where he was staying, a substitute for the around-town visits he used to make. Instead of going to visit prisoners in jail, he was visited by them. Instead of reading a speech prepared for the prisoners, he gave them the text.

Stairs trouble the Pope: In Sicily, organizers arranged screened industrial lifts--with red carpets--to raise John Paul up to altars.

After 16 grueling years as Pope, John Paul is increasingly stooped and often looks wan. His left hand shakes. Still, he seemed far stronger in Sicily than on visits to Zagreb, Croatia, and Lecce, Italy, in September.

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