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Spotlight Report

Pope's trip to North America provides test and testament

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/23/2002

His body is frail. The American Catholic church is in crisis. The number of young adults registered to come see him is well below expectations.

But an undaunted Pope John Paul II is still globetrotting, even during a summer when he is so weak that for the first time he has acceded to his doctors' wishes and canceled his weekly visit to the Vatican from his summer home at Castel Gandolfo.

The 82-year-old pontiff is scheduled to arrive in Toronto today to begin an 11-day trip to Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico. In Toronto, he will lead young adults from around the world in a celebration of Catholicism called World Youth Day; in Guatemala City and Mexico City he will name two saints.

The trip will be both a test of the pope's failing physical strength and a display of his spiritual resolve.

Attendance at World Youth Day is expected to be disappointing - to date fewer than 200,000 young adults have registered, far short of the 750,000 originally expected. Two years ago, when the pontiff held a jubilee World Youth Day, in Rome, 2 million young people showed up; in 1993, 600,000 attended the only previous World Youth Day in North America, held in Denver.

The crowds in Mexico and Guatemala are expected to be huge. The pope has emphasized the importance of Latin America for the church and in Mexico he will demonstrate his own devotion to the Virgin Mary when he canonizes Juan Diego, an indigenous child who experienced a vision of Mary in the 16th century.

But the eyes of much of the world will be on two items not on the agenda: the pope's health and whether he will comment on the plight of the church in the United States, which has been roiled this year by a clergy sexual abuse crisis ignited in Boston. The trip was planned before the sex abuse crisis exploded; the Vatican had discussed adding a stopover at ground zero in New York, but decided not to stop anywhere in the United States and briefly considered scrapping or altering the trip because of the pope's ill health.

Throughout his 24-year papacy, John Paul II has made an unprecedented priority of traveling to the farthest reaches of the planet, visiting Catholics in more than 130 countries. Also, he has placed a strong emphasis on his relationship with young Catholics, who, of course, represent the future of the church.

The trips have become an increasing physical challenge for the pope, who is weakened by Parkinson's disease, arthritis, the lingering effects of a difficult hip surgery, and hearing loss.

No longer can he bend to kiss the ground when he arrives in a country; now a box of earth is lifted to his lips.

He has so much trouble moving that electronic carriers have been constructed to help him disembark from airplanes and move from place to place.

His hands tremble, his voice is slurred, and his breathing is often labored. Still, those who see him daily say his mind remains sharp.

''Obviously, the physical limits under which he's operating are increasingly burdensome - his breathing is almost painful to hear up close, and he can't even stand for long periods of time without extreme pain,'' said John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''But he is still very much the one calling the shots. When you are conversing with him, he is still very attentive, very sharp, very engaged and a participant in the conversation. He is still very much capable of making decisions.''

Allen, who has written a book assessing candidates to replace John Paul II when he dies, argues that the pope is in better shape than he looks and that much of the expectation of his death comes from people who don't like John Paul's policies.

''On a wide range of issues, there is a sense that this pontificate has given its answers, and for people who don't like those answers, the wait is on for a change in regime,'' Allen says. ''For people who think the church has got to take another look at the role of women, or the birth control question, or how power is exercized, John Paul has said what John Paul is going to say. If you think more has to be said, then there is a waiting game, not because there's a leadership vacuum, but because there's a desire for new leadership.''

Some Vatican observers are skeptical about whether the pope is really in charge.

''Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear can tell how debilitated he is. I don't think the pope could possibly be in meaningful day-to-day charge of the administration of the Catholic Church,'' said Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. ''He is not the same man he was a few years ago and he doesn't have the same kind of drawing power.''

For many, the pope's persistence is inspiring.

''Even in the weakness of his years, he, and they [the young pilgrims] are youthful in the joy that is God's gift,'' Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston said Sunday to some of the 500 pilgrims he plans to lead to Toronto.

The pope arrives in the Americas at a difficult time. The church in the United States, and, to a lesser extent, Canada and Mexico, is facing controversy over a stream of revelations that hundreds of priests sexually abused minors in the latter half of the 20th century, and that in many cases, bishops failed to remove abusive priests from ministry.

The pope addressed the crisis most directly on April 23 when, in a special meeting with the American cardinals to deal with the controversy, he said, ''People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.''

He has not addressed the issue since and the Vatican is now considering whether to approve the child protection policies approved by the American bishops in Dallas last month.

He is expected to speak several times in Toronto - upon his arrival today, and then again on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and on Friday he is scheduled to have lunch with 20 young pilgrims. Any of those events could provide an occasion for the pope to speak on the sexual abuse issue, which has cost the church in Canada millions of dollars and is beginning to attract attention in Mexico.

The Vatican declined a request for the pope to meet with Canadian victims of clergy sexual abuse, saying he was too busy.

Organizers are blaming the lower-than-expected attendance at World Youth Day on a fear of travel since Sept. 11, and on the cost of getting to Canada. Thousands of youngsters from Africa have been denied visas by Canada, which feared they might not return home.

The largest delegation at World Youth Day, larger even than the Canadian delegation, will be from the United States. An estimated 52,000 US youngsters, as well as 125 US bishops, are scheduled to attend.

''This pope has always had a rapport with youth, even as he's gotten older and weaker,'' said Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton. Cuenin has been to three World Youth Days, and will be traveling with Boston-area young adults to Toronto today.

Despite his infirmities, the pope shows no sign of stopping his travels. Next month he is planning to make his ninth visit to Poland, his home country.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/23/2002.
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