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Spotlight Report

Pope brings message of hope to Toronto

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/24/2002

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TORONTO - Pope John Paul II, looking stronger than he has in months, arrived in Toronto yesterday for the start of an 11-day tour of the Americas and lamented that too many young people lead lives of despair.

The 82-year-old pontiff, who has been physically hobbled by Parkinson's disease and arthritis, declined to use the special lift he has needed to disembark from planes recently, and walked slowly down the stairs, using a cane and leaning on an aide as his white mozzetta fluttered in the gusty wind.

He then boarded a motorized platform to travel along a red carpet to a white throne, where he held his head in one hand and hunched over as he delivered remarks in French and English.

His voice, which has become increasingly slurred, was clearer than it has been recently, and he waved several times to the crowd.

Tens of thousands of young people from around the world, many carrying banners and flags from their home countries, watched the pope arrive on large-screen televisions from Exhibition Place, an open-air plaza along the shores of Lake Ontario where they are celebrating World Youth Day.

The crowd, including about 500 from the Archdiocese of Boston due to arrive last night, will spend days praying, studying, and socializing. Late yesterday afternoon they attended a large afternoon Mass under the glaring sun, beside huge scaffolded banners depicting young Christian martyrs from throughout history.

The pope spoke publicly yesterday only at an early afternoon arrival ceremony, after which he departed for two days on an island retreat in Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto.

At the Lester B. Pearson International Airport, he was greeted by a group of dignitaries who cheered, snapped pictures, and waved yellow and white papal flags as a band played the Vatican anthem and ''O Canada.''

The pope blessed about 24 young people representing the dioceses of Canada and the world and offered brief remarks about World Youth Day, a periodic global gathering of Catholic teenagers and young adults inaugurated by John Paul II in 1985 in Rome.

''With their gifts of intelligence and heart, they represent the future of the world,'' he said. ''But they also bear the marks of a humanity that too often does not know peace, or justice.''

The pontiff praised Canada as a society ''based on Christian revelation'' and as a ''champion of human rights and human dignity.''

The pope said that the young people not only commit themselves to Christian faith, but also ''to the great cause of peace and solidarity.''

About 200,000 people from 169 countries have registered for the Toronto World Youth Day - far short of the predicted 750,000 - but organizers are hopeful that as many as 350,000 will show up for the papal Mass on Sunday. The largest group of young people - about 52,000 - is from the United States, accompanied by 125 bishops, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who rode up yesterday by bus with local young people.

In his remarks, the pope did not mention the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has roiled the church in the United States, and American youngsters said they were willing for the moment to put the scandal aside.

''It's not relevant to me - there are so many priests out there that are absolutely wonderful,'' said Erin Norman, 18, of Fall River.

Emma O'Donnell, 17, of Mattapoisett, agreed. ''It doesn't affect my faith at all,'' she said.

Instead, O'Donnell said, she wanted a positive experience with other Catholics, and with the pope. ''He's huge - he's the closest thing we have to God on earth,'' she said. ''And I thought it would be an amazing experience to be in the same place as millions of people who believe the same things we do.''

The pontiff has been conserving his strength this summer, resting at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and scrapping his previous practice of flying back to the Vatican weekly to hold an audience for pilgrims. His sojourn at the Strawberry Island retreat, run by the Basilian Fathers, is intended to help him rest after the trip from Rome.

Church officials said the pope demanded that his helicopter be rerouted to pass over Exhibition Place so the congregation of young people could wave to the papal flight. They said he arrived safely at Strawberry Island, took a tour on a golf cart, met with the staff, and then spent the afternoon relaxing on a porch.

Church officials were delighted with the pope's physical strength.

''I was really impressed with the Holy Father because quite obviously his walking down the stairs is not a daily exercise for him, and also I couldn't help but admire him as he made a real effort to look at us, to look up and lift his head,'' said Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, archbishop of Toronto. ''These are things that take a fair amount of effort on his part now.''

Archbishop Anthony G. Meagher of Kingston, Canada, called the pope's disembarking from the airplane without the use of a lift ''absolutely astounding,'' and said the pope gains strength from the prospect of meeting with young people. ''I think he just said, `I'll walk down those steps to show that I'm here for you,''' Meagher said.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien hailed the pope, saying, ''We have, in the presence of Your Holiness, a truly inspiring example of personal commitment.''

Young adults said they traveled to Canada mostly for the chance to meet other Catholics.

''All the people here are Christian, and we are in love together, and we need that spirit,'' said Vincent Dinh, 25, of Hanover, Germany, who fled Vietnam on a boat in 1980.

For some, the chance to be with other Catholics was important. ''We are such a minority, and when we come here and see all the people from different places, you feel that there are many Christians, and that's a good feeling,'' said Nedal Hijazeen, 28, of Jordan. ''Human beings need faith, they need to sing and dance, and they need to make friendships.''

A variety of reform advocates, church critics, sex abuse victims, and religious dissidents also are descending on Toronto, contributing to a festival-like atmosphere.

A group called Challenge the Church is holding an alternative World Youth Day, offering a variety of events that critique the church from the feminists' point of view.

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, derided the demonstrators as ''a motley crew of malcontents.''

The pope is scheduled to stay in Toronto until Monday, when he is to depart for Guatemala and then Mexico to canonize two saints.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/24/2002.
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