In Slovakia, pope struggles during speech


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - Pope John Paul II arrived here yesterday to urge Slovaks not to follow Western Europe's drift from Christianity, but he could not manage to deliver that message in his own voice.

As he made his opening remarks at an airport greeting ceremony, he garbled his words, seemed to lose his place in the text and stopped after a few minutes. An aide took the text from him and handed it to another Vatican official to read.

The pope then slumped in his chair, looking pale and exhausted, although he had just landed in Bratislava after a flight from Rome of less than two hours. He rallied to finish the last lines of the speech, although he struggled through them.

It was the first time in more than a year that the pope's frailties had been the obvious cause of his abandoning a prepared text during a foreign trip, and it raised fresh questions about his health as he approached a keenly anticipated milestone.

Next month, hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics, including all of the Roman Catholic cardinals, are expected in Rome for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of his papacy.

John Paul, 83, suffers from Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological disorder, and near-crippling arthritis, among other ailments. He cannot stand for long without assistance and is wheeled, either in a chair or on a small platform, for distances as short as a few yards.

He did not follow through on tentative plans to take what would have been a grueling journey to Mongolia last month, but he has continued to take modest trips like the current one.

"Dearly beloved, bring to the construction of Europe's new identity the contribution of your rich Christian tradition," said a portion read by Monsignor Robert Urland, a Vatican official, in the Slovak language. The Vatican provided an English translation.

The remarks went on to beseech Slovaks to build "a society respectful of human life in all its expressions."

Those words referred to a fierce debate over abortion in Slovakia, whose roughly 5.4 million people are predominantly Roman Catholic and tend to be more conventionally devout than their counterparts in Western Europe.

The pope's trip, scheduled to end Sunday, could pose a serious physical challenge if yesterday was any indication. The pope sounded and looked much as he did in the spring of 2002, before a marked improvement in his health over the next year.

Although it is not uncommon for the pope to ask someone else to read portions of a speech in a language far removed from those he knows well, the Slovak language, which the pope was trying to speak, shares many similarities with Polish, his native language.

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