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Pontiff Unable to Deliver Speech

A frail John Paul II struggles to give his message upon his arrival in Slovakia, renewing concerns about his health.

September 12, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — At the start of a four-day visit to extol family values in largely Roman Catholic Slovakia, a weak Pope John Paul II on Thursday slurred his words, seemed short of breath and was unable to finish a speech to the crowd gathered to greet his arrival.

The pope's condition, both during the arrival ceremony and at a later appearance in a cathedral northeast of this capital, renewed fears about his health and ability to keep up an active schedule of travel and ministry.

Although aides and other priests sometimes read portions of John Paul's sermons and messages, this was the first time in 102 trips during a papacy spanning nearly 25 years that he has not finished an arrival speech, veteran Vatican reporters said.

Not since a visit to Bulgaria more than a year ago has the pope appeared this frail, with his infirmities forcing him to abandon public remarks, although there were reports over the summer that he was in poor health.

The 83-year-old pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease as well as knee and hip ailments, will mark the 25th anniversary of his election next month. Elaborate celebrations are expected to draw enormous numbers of Catholics to Rome from around the world.

His mission to this former Communist land is to sound familiar themes: the need for the faithful to adhere to and promote traditional values, including marriage and the begetting of children against continental trends of growing acceptance for gay unions and legalized abortion.

Slovakia is scheduled to join the European Union next year, and the pope hopes this country and others that have emerged from the Soviet bloc will bolster what he sees as Europe's Christian identity and counter Western Europe's defection from it.

"Dearly beloved, bring to the construction of Europe's new identity the contribution of your rich Christian tradition!" This was the pope's message, but Slovaks didn't hear it directly from John Paul.

The first signs of trouble came when the papal plane landed at Bratislava's airport after a flight of about 90 minutes. More than 20 minutes passed -- as Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, other dignitaries and a military band waited in the sun -- before the pope was lowered from the aircraft by a special hydraulic lift. No explanation was given for the delay.

Then the pope sat in a chair and began to address the welcoming crowd. Reading in Slovak, a Slavic language close to his native Polish, he struggled through the first paragraph. His secretary, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, twice helped the pope find his place before finally taking the speech away from him. One top Vatican official looked on in alarm while others recruited a young Slovak priest from the Vatican staff to continue reading.

John Paul then attempted to finish the last paragraph, but Slovaks present said they had trouble understanding him.

His spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said there was no cause for undue concern. "Although the pope wanted to continue to read, I think it's logical to ease his burdens," he said.

Later, Navarro-Valls said the pope would complete his visit to Slovakia, which includes appearances in four cities. He added that he did not "see any real obstacle" to future travel.

The pope later met with Schuster and, according to Navarro-Valls, thanked the Slovak president for recently vetoing a law that would have extended the legal period in which women can obtain abortions when their fetuses are genetically impaired.

"Even with certain health problems, he came and sacrificed himself for Slovakia, because he loves our people," Schuster said after the meeting.

Local church officials said they planned to introduce the pope to 5-year-old twins, formerly conjoined and now separated, to dramatize their opposition to abortion. Abortion laws were relatively liberal under Communist rule, which ended in 1989 in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Later, visiting the cathedral in the western city of Trnava, John Paul thanked the crowd in Polish for their warm welcome. But he again turned to someone else, this time Slovak Cardinal Jozef Tomko, to read a brief prayer service.

Reporters at the cathedral said Vatican officials, who appeared to be worried, wheeled the pope into a side sacristy before the service. He stayed there for about 10 minutes, then emerged without explanation. Navarro-Valls denied that any medical treatment was given to him.

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