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Pope prays for strength to continue

Pope John Paul II prayed on Monday for the strength to continue in his papacy, which has seen a once robust, tireless pontiff lose energy and struggle with health problems.

"I ask God for the strength to carry on, until He wants me to, in faithful service to the Church of Rome and to the entire world," John Paul said in his traditional New Year's Eve homily, sparking applause and tears from the congregation in St. Peter's Basilica.

The use of the basilica for this year's service seemed linked to the pontiff's physical frailty. Except for recent Holy Year services, the year-end ceremony traditionally is held in a much smaller church in downtown Rome.

But the basilica is close to the pope's residence and can accommodate the moving platform that helps the pontiff navigate distances, sparing him an uncomfortable walk.

After Monday's service of thanksgiving, John Paul startled tourists by making a surprise visit to the Christmas creche, with its life-size figures, at the center of St. Peter's Square.

The pope's prayer for strength came a day after the Vatican denied an Italian newspaper report suggesting that John Paul, allegedly feeling his health was deteriorating rapidly, wanted to move up the sainthood ceremony for popular Italian monk Padre Pio, a figure especially dear to the pontiff.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a statement saying the pope had given no such indications.