Pope John Paul II travels to Slovakia on Thursday in what Vatican observers say will be a physical test for the 83-year-old leader of the world's Roman Catholics. In the small Eastern European nation, the Pope is likely to focus his words on Europe and its future.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to turn out for the Pope's open-air masses in Slovakia. Fearing it could be his last visit to central Europe due to his worsening health, many will be crossing the border from neighboring Poland.
The Pope's physical condition seems to have deteriorated over the past month, mainly due to an extremely hot summer in Rome. In his public appearances, he has appeared short of breath and his voice has been weak, although he has not missed any of his appointments.
The Pope will spend four days in Slovakia, where 70 percent of the country's population of 5.4 million is Catholic. He will celebrate masses, deliver a message to the country's bishops and on Sunday beatify a bishop and a nun who were imprisoned under communist rule.
The Pope believes Slovakia, which is set to join the European Union in May, can make a specific contribution to the old continent. His homilies are likely to focus on European issues and the need to fight the evils of Western-style secularism and anti-family practices like abortion.
Pope John Paul recently called for the new European constitution, which member nations hope to sign by the end of the year, to include an explicit mention of the old continent's Christian heritage.
Security is tight ahead of the Pope's arrival in Slovakia. Around 5,000 police officers are being deployed during the pilgrimage. Authorities this week were investigating a death threat made against the pontiff but provided no details.
Slovakia is the Pope's 102nd foreign trip during his nearly 25-year papacy and the last scheduled this year. The pontiff has not ruled out further travel abroad and visits to Switzerland, Austria, France and Poland are under consideration for 2004, although none yet have been confirmed.