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Pope prays for strength to continue in his papacy

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VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Pope John Paul II prayed Monday for the strength to continue in his papacy, which has seen a once robust, tireless pontiff lose energy and struggle with health problems.

``I ask God for the strength to carry on, until He wants me to, in faithful service to the Church of Rome and to the entire world,'' John Paul said in his traditional New Year's Eve homily, sparking applause and tears from the congregation in St. Peter's Basilica.

The use of the basilica for this year's service seemed linked to the pontiff's physical frailty. Except for recent Holy Year services, the year-end ceremony traditionally is held in a much smaller church in downtown Rome.

But the basilica is close to the pope's residence and can accommodate the moving platform that helps the pontiff navigate distances, sparing him an uncomfortable walk.

For several years, John Paul has had a chronic hand tremor and a shuffling step, symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

While the early days of his 23-year papacy saw him breeze through as many as a dozen speeches a day, he now often tires easily. Christmas Day saw him slump back in his chair on the balcony of the basilica after giving a speech and reading holiday greetings in 60 languages.

After Monday's service of thanksgiving, John Paul startled tourists by making a surprise visit to the Christmas creche, with its life-size figures, at the center of St. Peter's Square.

Wearing a cape and wool vest to protect himself from the chilly night air, the pontiff prayed before the nativity scene for about five minutes before taking a limousine back to his apartment.

The pope's prayer for strength came a day after the Vatican denied an Italian newspaper report suggesting that John Paul, allegedly feeling his health was deteriorating rapidly, wanted to move up the sainthood ceremony for popular Italian monk Padre Pio, a figure especially dear to the pontiff.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a statement saying the pope had given no such indications.

The Vatican press office on Monday also issued statistics for the pontiff's years, saying his audiences attracted more than 2.5 million people.

The pope also traveled to Kazakstan, Greece and Syria in 2001. Next year, he intends to visit Canada and possibly Bulgaria.

In his year-end homily, the pope did not specifically mention the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or any military conflicts.

Instead, he said that while man keenly wants to make sense of events, God ``exhorts us to not investigate uselessly on that which is reserved to God _ that is, precisely, the course of events _ but to use the time each has at one's disposition, the present, working with brotherly love.''
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