Pope leads Mass near hilltop shrine

Sunday, September 5th 2004, 9:22 am
By: News On 6

LORETO, Italy (AP) _ A frail Pope John Paul II traveled to a hilltop shrine near the Adriatic Sea on Sunday, putting three more Catholics on the road to sainthood during an open-air Mass attended by some 200,000 pilgrims.

Pilgrims cheered and waved scarves as John Paul, in sparkling green vestments, was wheeled to the altar to begin the service.

The 84-year-old pontiff struggled at times to read his text, leaving one portion to be read by an aide. But his voice was relatively clear and he seemed stronger than during his trip to Lourdes, France, three weeks ago.

A prayer was read during the Mass for the Russian school tragedy _ ``for the dead, for the children and for all the innocent victims.'' Hundreds of people were killed in violence at a hostage standoff at the school in southern Russia.

Organizers and police said at least 200,000 pilgrims showed up at Italy's leading Marian shrine, which overlooks the glittering Adriatic.

Security was tight, with police closing down roads into Loreto hours before the pope's arrival by Italian military helicopter from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

The trip was arranged around the beatification of three members _ a Spaniard and two Italians _ of the Christian organization Catholic Action.

John Paul has Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments. He has difficulty reading, walking and standing and aides wheel him around during his public appearances. Still, he has insisted on keeping up his travels.

It was his fifth trip to Loreto of his nearly 26-year papacy.

Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood. Sunday's ceremony raises to 1,333 the number of Catholics John Paul has beatified, a record among popes.

The pope has sought to give Catholics role models. Those beatified Sunday were a Spanish priest-physician, Pedro Tarres y Claret, and two lay Italians, Alberto Marvelli and Pina Suriano.