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Ailing pontiff presses on with pilgrimage to central Slovakia city

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BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia (AP) _ Pressing on with a grueling four-day pilgrimage, Pope John Paul II brought his message of spiritual renewal to central Slovakia on Friday after a faltering start to his trip.

The 83-year-old pope looked more alert as he presided over a Mass for up to 150,000 pilgrims braving a chilly drizzle in Banska Bystrica, the epicenter of a Slovak uprising against Nazi sympathizers who held power here during World War II.

Speaking in Slovak in a shaky and sometimes slurred voice, the pontiff thanked God that ``he allowed me another apostolic trip in the name of Christ.''

But after beginning his homily by greeting the crowd, which chanted, ``Let the Holy Father live!,'' John Paul asked Cardinal Josef Tomko to read most of the rest before finishing the last few lines himself.

The pope's visit got off to a rough start Thursday when John Paul _ who suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments _ failed to get through his arrival remarks for the first time in 102 foreign trips. An aide read most of the rest of the speech.

Later, just before an evening prayer service at the cathedral in the western city of Trnava, Vatican officials rushed to find a room in the cathedral. The pope was then wheeled into the sacristy, where two aides brought in what appeared to be medical equipment. John Paul emerged several minutes later.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls dismissed the idea of any medical emergency, saying if medical equipment was moved around the church, it was not for the pope.

Navarro-Valls said the trip ``absolutely'' would continue despite the pope's feeble appearance and slurred speech.

Slovakia is John Paul's last scheduled trip this year, but Vatican planners are considering invitations from Switzerland, Austria and the pope's native Poland next year. Earlier this year, he visited Croatia and Bosnia.

``I don't see any real obstacle'' to future travel, Navarro-Valls said.

John Paul's determination inspired the sick in Banska Bystrica, about 120 miles east of the capital, Bratislava. Jozef Hrtus of the local bishop's office said several ill people who had planned to stay in bed during the pope's stop decided to attend the Mass after all to pray for and encourage the pontiff.

``Your visit is extremely precious for us because you come to us with weakened health, with much strain and bearing a cross,'' Bishop Rudolf Balaz told the pope.

When Slovakia came under communist rule in 1948, the church endured intense persecution. Its sufferings will figure prominently in the pope's visit, which is expected to draw half a million of the faithful from Slovakia and neighboring countries.

Many priests were ordained in secret, and hundreds were imprisoned or sentenced to forced labor by a regime that confiscated all church property. On Sunday, the pope will beatify as martyrs a bishop and a nun who were jailed and tortured in the 1950s.

The pope alluded to that turbulent past Friday, speaking of Slovaks' devotion and ``the attempt to profane this precious inheritance, perpetrated by a bleak regime of not so many years ago.''

Reaching out to Slovakia, which joins the European Union next year, the pope touched on what has become a recurrent theme: a plea to Europeans to reaffirm traditional family values in the face of liberal abortion laws and growing legal recognition of homosexual unions.

John Paul called on parents to educate their children in the faith. ``The family is the nursery where the little plants, the new generations, are nurtured. In the family, the future of the nation is forged,'' he said.

The pope first visited the country in 1990, a year after communism crumbled in then-Czechoslovakia, and returned in 1995, two years after the Czech Republic and Slovakia became independent states.

Nearly seven in 10 of Slovakia's 5.4 million people are Catholics, and tens of thousands have lined his motorcade routes.

``We honor him from all our heart,'' said Helena Kundisova, an 18-year-old student. ``We hope this is not the last time we see him here.''
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