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Pope spends Sunday on spa island

After weeks of stress from health problems and sex abuse scandals stinging the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II took a break from the Vatican and traveled to a spa island Sunday in the first of several trips that will test his stamina in the coming months.

John Paul flew by helicopter from Rome to this mountainous island in the Bay of Napes, then was driven past cheering crowds in a "popemobile" with bulletproof glass. But instead of standing up inside the vehicle as he usually does to wave to well-wishers, the pontiff stayed seated and raised his hand weakly in greeting.

His thin white hair tousled by a strong sea breeze, the pope looked pale and weary as he celebrated a dockside Mass. The widely traveled pontiff had not travelled outside of Rome since January, when he spent a day of prayer in the central hill town of Assisi.

After that outing, the pope cancelled or cut back a string of public ceremonies and appearances because of what the Vatican said was arthrosis of the knee. He also suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease, including a tremor in his hand and slurred speech.

But John Paul spoke hopefully Sunday of more trips and appeared to perk up momentarily at the end of the day at a youth gathering, where he was given a three-foot-long birthday cake in anticipation of his 82nd birthday on 18 May.

"For this you need a very youthful appetite!" a beaming John Paul said, amid rounds of "Happy Birthday" in Italian and "O Sole Mio," which the emcee said was one of the Holy Father's favourite songs.

John Paul has several trips planned in the coming weeks and months, including visits to Bulgaria and Azerbaijan later in May. Within months, he is also expected in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala and his native Poland.


6 May 2002