Many pilgrims at Canada event sense this is last chance to see Pope John Paul II

Friday, July 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TORONTO (AP) _ Amid the excitement of World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto, there is a poignant undertone: many of the young pilgrims sense this is the last time they will see the ailing Pope John Paul II.

``He's the only pope we've ever known,'' said Jessie Borries, 17, of Port Angeles, Wash. ``Losing him will be like losing part of your family.''

More than 200,000 young people from 170 countries thronged into a lakeside fairgrounds Thursday, waving flags, dancing to bouncy religious songs and chanting, ``J-P Two, We Love You'' as the 82-year-old pope arrived to open the church's 17th World Youth Day festivities.

John Paul described himself as the ``aged pope, full of years but still young at heart.''

Through the course of his papacy, the pope has become an idol to many young Catholics, but the adulation this year has a wistful edge because of his age and poor health.

``We see this as our last opportunity to see him,'' said Cushla Morris, 28, of Australia. ``God uses him in his fragility. He still has that magnetism.''

The crowd, though united in its love for John Paul, was remarkably diverse. Young nuns and seminarians mingled with girls in skimpy halter tops and boys with spiked hair and tattoos. Among the many T-shirt slogans were ``Pray Hard'' and ``God Squad.''

One group of youths, coming hours in advance to claim a spot close to the stage, saluted the pope with their own version of Queen's rock anthem, ``We Will Rock You.''

In his address, the pope referred to the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States, saying, ``Last year we saw with dramatic clarity the tragic face of human malice. We saw what happens when hatred, sin and death take command.''

He did not mention the clergy sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church in several countries and has been blamed in part for below-expected Youth Day attendance.

The address came the same day as a $12 million out-of-court settlement between two Catholic schools in Vancouver, Canada and a group of people who were sexually abused as children at a Catholic orphanage. A spokesman for the schools said Vancouver-area Catholics would help raise the money.

Despite concerns about whether he could withstand the 11-day trip that proceeds next week to Guatemala and Mexico, the pope spoke in a clear, strong voice and walked to his seat on stage, aided by a cane in his right hand and an aide holding his left arm.

Interviewed as they waited for the pope's arrival, youths from four continents spoke knowledgeably of the church's problems _ declining attendance, the sex scandals, debate over the ordination of women _ yet were optimistic about the church's future.

They seemed uninterested in radical reforms, but eager for the pope's overtures toward young people to be continued and expanded.

``A lot of young people have had a falling out with the church,'' said Matthew DuBeau, 21. ``The pope saw that; others in the church, it's almost like they had given up.''

DeBeau said young Catholics wonder if the next pope will establish the same rapport with them _ ``It's a hard act to follow.''

Following the welcoming party, the pope returned to an island retreat north of Toronto. He will return to the city for a nighttime vigil Saturday and a Mass on Sunday. On Friday, the pope was to be joined for lunch by 14 youngsters from Canada, the United States, Sudan, China, Jordan, India, Bosnia, Germany, Austria, Peru and Tahiti.

Among those cheering the loudest for the pope Thursday were a group of young people from a Polish community in Cologne, Germany, site of the next World Youth Day in 2005. Some of the group members were born in the pope's native Poland, and he is their greatest hero.

``Everybody knows that he's old _ that's a fact,'' said Mateusz Slanica. ``But he's very young in his mind. Everything he says is right; it's up-to-date.''

Rene Lewis, 18, of Houston, praised the pope for making young people one of his priorities.

``It's sad, because this is our last opportunity to share with him,'' she said. ``It will be difficult after he's gone, but anything can happen. A new pope will have that much more energy, that much more drive.''

Vincent Morel, 16, of France, said the pope's appeal to young people seemed to grow more intense as he aged.

``The next pope will need to do something to attract us,'' Morel said. ``Will he sing with us, will he mix in the crowd with us? He'll have to do something.''