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Resolute Pontiff Urges the Faithful to Pray for Him

Amid the ruins of Pompeii, John Paul II appeals for peace in an era 'stained with blood in so many regions.'

October 08, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

POMPEII, Italy — With Mt. Vesuvius in the background, a determined Pope John Paul II indirectly confronted growing concern over his failing health Tuesday, urging the Catholic faithful to pray for him "today and always."

The pope traveled by helicopter to the ancient ruins of this southern Italian town, making a public appearance outside Rome for the first time since a four-day trip to Slovakia in early September left him exhausted and weak.

The Slovakia trip, a canceled general audience at the Vatican and the candid comments of several cardinals have led to intense speculation over whether the 83-year-old pontiff was nearing death. In recent appearances, he has been unable to finish speeches and has slurred his words.

As a cloudy sky cleared Tuesday and wind whipped the robes of priests and nuns who accompanied him, John Paul seemed alert and a little stronger. He spoke slowly in a quavering voice but made it through most of a two-page address as he led worshippers in prayer at the century-old Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii.

Marking the end of the Year of the Rosary, the pope -- who opposed the U.S. war in Iraq -- made an urgent appeal for peace in an era "already lashed by the winds of war and stained with blood in so many regions."

Among the banners unfurled by thousands of pilgrims were two flags -- one Israeli, one Palestinian -- flanking a multicolored pace -- or peace -- flag.

The shrine is in modern Pompeii, a short distance from the excavated ruins of the ancient city destroyed in AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted and buried homes, shops and thousands of people.

"These ruins can talk; they ask the decisive question of what is man's destiny," the pope said.

"Today, just as in the times of ancient Pompeii, it is necessary to proclaim Christ to a society that has distanced itself from Christian values and even seems to have lost its memory."

Whenever the pope faltered in his remarks, the crowd cheered him on. "Viva il papa! Long live the pope!"

"Pray for me in this sanctuary, today and always," he added in improvised remarks, alluding to his death by asking to be remembered in prayer "always."

Though he remained stooped and largely immobile -- special devices were used to lift him into the helicopter that brought him to Pompeii -- the pope reacted quickly when the wind nearly blew away his white cap. His hand shot up to hold it in place.

And he waved steadily at crowds that lined the short route from the ruins of an ancient gymnasium, where his helicopter landed, to the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin, site of the shrine. He rode in his specially fitted "popemobile."

This was a homecoming of sorts, with the pope returning to the Pompeii shrine 24 years after his first visit, when he was a far more robust and newly elected leader of the Roman Catholic Church. John Paul next week will mark a quarter-century in office, one of the longest reigns in the church's history.

He faces a busy schedule over the next two weeks, including celebrations marking his anniversary, the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and a ceremony to install 30 new cardinals, formally inducting them into the body that one day will decide on John Paul's successor.

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