Tired pope prays for peace in holiday message

John Paul II delivers full Christmas blessing, remarks despite fatigue

December 26, 2003|By Sebastian Rotella and Damian Sarasola | Sebastian Rotella and Damian Sarasola,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VATICAN CITY - A fatigued but determined Pope John Paul II read his traditional Christmas Day blessing to the faithful in St. Peter's Square yesterday and prayed for salvation from the evils of war and terrorism.

Although the infirm 83-year-old pontiff looked tired after having presided over midnight Mass hours earlier, he completed his noontime remarks and Christmas Day greeting, which he delivered in 62 languages.

Vatican observers said he looked stronger during his Christmas appearances than he did during celebrations in October marking his 25th anniversary as pope, when he seemed especially frail and was unable to deliver some readings.

"Save us from the great evils which lacerate humanity in this beginning of the third millennium," Pope John Paul II said during the Christmas Day appearance. "Save us from the wars and the armed conflicts that devastate entire regions of the globe, from the plague of terrorism and the many forms of violence that afflict weak and helpless people."

Despite the pope's chronic maladies, he might proceed with four planned trips in Europe and Mexico in 2004, his spokesman said yesterday.

"He hasn't decided yet, but he hasn't canceled them," said Joaquin Navarro Valls, the Vatican spokesman. "The vitality of his thoughts is still intact, as demonstrated by recent statements, including his messages about peace and immigration and some homilies."

The pontiff has received invitations to events in Switzerland, France, Austria and Mexico in the coming year, Navarro said.

John Paul II is expected to lead New Year's prayers and Mass next week, but will not participate in two Vatican events next month - an ordination of bishops and baptisms - because of concerns for his health, according to news reports.

Yesterday, the pope smiled as he was wheeled in on his ceremonial chair to deliver the "Urbi et Orbi" (Latin for "to the city and to the world") message from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica. He read slowly and haltingly, sometimes interrupted by applause and song from thousands of worshippers in the square.

The night before, the pope seemed in stronger form when he presided over a Mass that lasted more than 90 minutes. He read his entire homily and appealed for peace and tolerance.

"Too much blood still stains the Earth, too much violence and too many conflicts disturb the serene coexistence of nations," the pope said. He called for the "gift of the life of Christ to help us to understand better how much the life of every human being is worth."

Through diplomacy and public appeals this year, the Vatican sought to avert a war in Iraq, and some Vatican officials have raised pointed questions about American actions there since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. The pope's remarks have been vaguer, as they were in his Christmas messages, which he delivered in a quavering and sometimes labored voice that betrayed his long battle with Parkinson's disease. He painstakingly squeezed out his words, some of which were not easy to discern.

The decline in John Paul's strength forced adjustments to his routine and cutbacks in his schedule this week.

Times staff writer Rotella reported from Barcelona, Spain, and special correspondent Sarasola from Rome. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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