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In Slovakia, Pontiff Falters During Mass

September 14, 2003|From Times Wire Reports

ROZNAVA, Slovakia — A frail Pope John Paul II struggled through a long Mass on a wind-swept hill Saturday, speaking to tens of thousands of Roman Catholic Slovaks as well as many of his fellow Poles who crossed the border fearing it would be the last time they would see him.

Nearing the end of a grueling four-day pilgrimage, the 83-year-old pope often slumped in his chair, slurred his words and lost his place in the text.

John Paul's voice was weak and his hand trembled as he addressed the crowd. The pope turned his homily over to a cardinal to read after losing his place twice at the start.

"We all see that he is weak. But for Slovaks, whom he loves, he does a lot," Slovakian President Rudolf Schuster said.

Saturday's Mass was an opportunity for local bishops to rally support for the church's tough stance against abortion.

As 150,000 pilgrims and a national television audience looked on, 3-year-old twins Lucia and Andrea Tothova, wearing blue blouses and carrying dolls dressed in national costumes, were brought to the altar.

The girls, who were joined at the pelvis before being surgically separated in 2000, were accompanied by their mother. The pope touched each on the cheek. Their mother kissed the pope's ring. "Be protectors of life," the pope said.

Local bishops, now fighting attempts to liberalize Slovakia's abortion law, said the encounter was intended to show the joy the mother would have missed had she had an abortion.

Under communism, when contraceptives were scarce, many Slovaks used abortion as a form of birth control.

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