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Pope Celebrates Outdoor Mass in Slovakia - 2003-09-12

Pope John Paul II celebrated an outdoor mass in central Slovakia Friday, the second day of his four-day visit to the one-time communist country. The pontiff called on Slovaks to use their liberty wisely.

Under rainy skies, Pope John Paul II was welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd of about 150,000 people who frequently interrupted his speech with chants of "Long live the holy father."

Worshipers who gathered for the mass in Banska Bystrica, about 200 kilometers east of the capital Bratislava, included many from the pope's native Poland.

The pontiff, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and arthritis, appeared much stronger than he did on arrival in Bratislava Thursday.

In his sermon Friday, the pope urged the mainly Catholic Slovaks to learn to use their post-Communist liberty wisely.

He says public education in freedom is urgently needed, especially within the family. The pope also recalled the dark years of communist rule which dominated the country for decades after World War II.

But the open air mass was not a somber affair.

A Christian youth group sang devotional songs, as young artists increasingly do in response to the pope's effort to reach out to a younger generation.

The pope's trip to Slovakia is his 102nd foreign visit since assuming the papacy.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Hungary, Christian groups and politicians from across Europe are meeting to discuss the role of religion in government. They are part of a debate encouraged by the Vatican on whether Christianity should in some way be recognized in the European Union's constitution.