Originally created 06/03/04

Pope leaves for Switzerland on Saturday, first trip in nine months.



VATICAN CITY -- Watching him slump in his chair, slur his words and gasp for breath during a pilgrimage to Slovakia nine months ago, even close aides of Pope John Paul II wondered whether the most-traveled pontiff in history would travel again.

But Saturday, the 84-year-old John Paul sets off on a 32-hour visit to Switzerland, the latest test of a frail condition that has left him to be pushed in a wheeled chair by aides.

He could have been talking about himself during his weekly public audience Wednesday when, citing a Psalm, he said suffering "can be a path to purification, to interior freedom and to enrichment of soul."

As he has in recent months, John Paul looked stronger, lingering with pilgrims for more than an hour after the formal audience was finished.

The pope has Parkinson's disease and is slowed by hip and knee ailments. He no longer stands in public and celebrates Mass while seated in a special chair. His texts are shorter because speaking is clearly a strain.

While the Swiss program has been scaled down, compared with other foreign trips over the years, the visit to the capital of Bern still will be taxing. It includes a rally expected to draw up to 10,000 Swiss Catholic youths in a sports arena Saturday evening and an open-air Mass for 60,000 people in a meadow outside the city the next morning.

Although Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, he will probably take the opportunity during his stop in the multicultural and multilingual country to stress the Christian traditions across Europe - a theme Vatican diplomats have been pressing to be included in a constitution for an expanded EU.

The Swiss government plans to present John Paul with a gift - taking the final step for full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. It will upgrade its "special mission" in Rome to full ambassadorial level, overcoming historical reluctance in one of the centers of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.

The Vatican's relations with its own flock have not always been good. Moderate Catholics were angered by the appointment of a conservative auxiliary bishop in Switzerland in 1988.

Earlier this month, a group of leading Swiss Catholic theologians said popes - like bishops - should step down when they turn 75. John Paul has always brushed such suggestions aside.

The trip will be the 103rd pilgrimage of John Paul's 25-year papacy and his third to Switzerland.

Vatican officials are planning a mid-August visit to the Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, and a third visit this year to a still-undisclosed location is under consideration.

And, after an absence of two years, John Paul will return in July to a vacation hamlet in the Italian Alps near France.

In the meantime, he has been keeping up a regular schedule of meetings and audiences. On Friday, the pope, a staunch critic of the war in Iraq, will receive President Bush.

Bush, traveling to Europe for World War II commemorations, moved up his schedule to enable him to see John Paul before the pontiff departs for Switzerland.