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Pope's health status competes with message: in Slovakia, he honors martyrs under communism, stresses right to life.

If John Paul's Sept. 11-14 trip to Slovakia were to be his last, it would be a symbolically fitting finish: a Slavic nation where the pope struck several of his signature themes--20th century martyrs to communism, the Christian roots of Europe, human dignity and the right to life.

No one who has watched Pope John Paul II survive predictions of his ruin time and again, however, is willing to say definitively this is the last time we'll see him on the road.

The pope's physical condition dominated news reports from his four-day visit to this Central European nation of 5.4 million, where some 74 percent of the population is Catholic. His inability to finish his speeches on the opening day alarmed observers who had not seen John Paul since his June visit to Bosnia, when he seemed more robust. Vatican officials conceded that this seemed more than routine up-and-down variation, but a new stage of deterioration.

References to the pope's condition were unusually explicit.

"Your visit is extremely precious for us because you come to us with weakened health, that is, with much strain and bearing a cross," said Bishop Rudolf Balaz of Banska Bystrica, welcoming the pope Sept. 12.

While the John Paul on display in Slovakia was clearly a weakened man, there was no sense of imminent crisis among his senior advisers. As is almost always the case, the pope seemed to pick up over the course of the trip, reading extended portions of his homily in a deeper and stronger voice during the final Mass Sept. 14.

Vatican officials expressed optimism that the pope can continue to make at least limited trips, such as a possible 2004 visit to Switzerland or France. Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls said he saw "no real obstacle" to other outings.

Nevertheless, the health question could not help but overshadow John Paul's message in Slovakia. That had to be frustrating for the pontiff, because he actually had a great deal to say

Seen from the pope's point of view, this trip was indeed about suffering, but not his own. He came primarily to honor the sacrifices made by Catholic martyrs under what he called the "dark days of persecution and silence" during the communist period.

A secondary rationale was to extend John Paul's battle for the soul of Europe, just ahead of the Oct. 4 opening of an intergovernmental conference in Rome to finalize the new European constitution. He has insisted that the constitution should explicitly acknowledge the continent's Christian roots.

The pope urged Slovaks to uphold traditional Christian values such as the family, a clear call to oppose current moves to liberalize Slovakia's abortion law.

"Bring to the construction of Europe's new identity the contribution of your rich Christian tradition!" John Paul urged Slovaks at the Sept. 11 welcoming ceremony in the capital of Bratislava.

"Do not be satisfied with the sole quest for economic advantages. Great affluence in fact can also generate great poverty." the pope said.

In Banska Bystrica, John Paul recalled that the statue of the Virgin Mary in the square where his Sept. 12 Mass was celebrated had been removed in 1964 for a visit of Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev and placed behind the city walls, where it remained until 1994. He called on Slovaks to cherish their "precious inheritance" that the "bleak regime of not so many years ago" had attempted to profane.

On Sunday, Sept. 14, the pope beatified Bishop Vasil Hopko and Sacred Heart Sr. Zdenka Cecilia Schelingova, calling them "radiant examples of faithfulness in times of harsh and ruthless religious persecution." Both died as a result of injuries sustained after being jailed by the communist authorities following their rise to power in 1948 and the beginning of an anti-religious crackdown in 1950 that many experts consider the most ferocious in the Soviet bloc.

Hopko, one of two Eastern-rite Greek Catholic bishops in Slovakia at the time of the communist rise to power in 1948, spent 13 and a half years in prison for refusing to accept the forced dissolution of the Greek Catholic church. During those years he was beaten during interrogations, not allowed to sleep for long periods, forced to walk continually for hours, and put on limited rations of food and water. The experience took its toll, and when Hopko was released in 1964 he suffered deep psychological trauma. He died in 1976, after seeing the Greek Catholic church restored to legal status during the "Prague Spring" of 1968. An autopsy revealed that Hopko had been slowly poisoned in prison; his body had a level of arsenic 1,000 times above normal tolerance levels for a human being.

Schelingova's story is similarly dramatic. While working as a nurse, she attempted to help six priests escape from a hospital where they were sent to recover from interrogations before being shipped off to jail. The plot was discovered, and Schelingova was arrested on Feb. 29, 1952. Her captors believed she had an accomplice and were determined to beat the name out of her. They began by kicking her, they threw her into a vat of freezing water. As she was on the point of drowning, they removed her, then threw her back. Two men then dragged her by the hair to another room, where they stripped her, bound her arms, and put her on a pulley that lifted her off the floor. They beat her savagely with clubs until she lost consciousness. The process was repeated several times until the officials were satisfied that Schelingova had no accomplice to name. She was released on April 7, 1955, and died on July 31 at the age of 38.

While the pope's message was one of keeping historical memory alive, some critics objected that those memories were selective.

Two names inextricably linked to 20th-century Slovakian Catholic history were noticeably absent from official discourse: Msgr. Josef Tiso, who led a Nazi-allied Slovak state from 1939 to 1945 that deported some 60,000 Jews, and Vladimir Meciar, prime minister from 1992 to 1998, whose authoritarian and nationalist rule was supported by elements in the Slovak church. Sources told NCR, for example, that some elderly Slovaks carry pictures of Meciar in their prayer books like holy cards.

No doubt because John Paul wished to focus on Slovakia's church of the catacombs, there was a strong tendency to gloss over its period as the church militant, more victimizer than victim.

Current events in Slovakia also formed part of the backdrop. Prior to the pope's arrival, the local press complained about the $2.1 million price tag for the visit, John Paul's third to Slovakia. Complaints became so bitter that Cardinal Jan Korec, considered a national hero in Slovakia for his suffering in a communist prison, referred to the debate as "pitiful and uncivilized."

Slovakia is also divided over abortion, with the parliament set to reconsider a law making abortion legal within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, instead of the current 12 weeks. President Rudolf Schuster vetoed the measure in July, but the ruling coalition is split on the issue.

The pope called on Slovaks to build a society "respectful of human life in all its expressions" in his address Sept. 11.

The debate took an unexpected turn on Saturday, Sept. 13, when three-year-old conjoined twins who had been successfully separated were introduced to the pope at the end of his Mass in Roznava. Bishop Eduard Kojnok decided to present them to reinforce the argument that even the most seemingly desperate situations are not an argument for abortion.

The political effectiveness of the symbolism was undercut, however, when the twins' mother gave an interview to the local media saying that she had not known the burdens the twins would have to carry, and hinted that had she known, she might have opted for an abortion. She also objected to what she felt was the "instrumentalization" of her children by the church for political purposes.

In the end, however, it was the image of a tired and sluggish John Paul II that will likely form the most indelible image of his 102nd foreign journey. As for the future, as Slovakian Cardinal Josef Tomko put it, "How can you say what is the last with John Paul II? ... We are all in the hands of God."

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is
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Title Annotation:World
Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:4EXSV
Date:Sep 26, 2003
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