Pope John Paul the Second, battling against failing health, journeyed to the ancient shrine at Pompeii, in southern Italy, on Tuesday to pray for world peace. He appeared in relatively good form as he addressed thousands of pilgrims and tourists gathered in the town square for the special occasion.
The pope urged Christian believers and men of good will to be builders and witnesses of peace, in his words, at the start of this millennium, already shaken by winds of war and marked by bloodshed in so many regions of the world.
John Paul led a prayer service and addressed thousands of people gathered in the square in front of the century-old shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary. The crowd cheered enthusiastically when the pope arrived.
Despite his increasingly frail health, the 83-year-old pope insisted on visiting the sanctuary, which is very dear to him. The shrine of Pompeii is one of the most important in the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Every year four million pilgrims visit the sanctuary and pray the rosary.
The pope dedicated his pontificate to the Virgin Mary after he was elected leader of the world's Roman Catholics in 1978. He has visited Pompeii once before, just one year after his election.
On Tuesday, Pope John Paul traveled to Pompeii by helicopter, about an hour's flight from Vatican City, and spent less than three hours in the town that is also famous for its well-preserved ancient Roman ruins, left over from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. These ruins speak out, the pope said. They put the decisive question as to what is the destiny of man. They are witnesses of a great culture. Today, just like in the times of ancient Pompeii, it is necessary to announce Christ to a society which is moving away from Christian values and even loses its memory.
Pope John Paul suffers from Parkinson's disease, but he has refused to cut back on a busy schedule this month to mark the 25th anniversary of his election.
While his visit to Pompeii was undoubtedly shorter than it would have been some years ago, the pope appears to want to make clear he still intends to travel and move, although at a slower pace.