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Joking About Health, Pope Begins 11-Day Asian Trip That Will Test His Stamina

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Feeling well enough to joke about his health, Pope John Paul II arrived here today to begin an 11-day Asian tour that will test his stamina while extending his church’s honor role of revered Catholics.

In the Philippines, the first stop on a four-nation tour that is his first to Asia in five years and his longest pilgrimage since 1991, John Paul will preside at weekend ceremonies in Manila marking his church’s 10th World Youth Day.

On Monday, the 74-year-old pontiff goes to Papua New Guinea, then on to Australia and Sri Lanka, launching local Catholics on the road to sainthood at beatification ceremonies in all three countries.

Underlining the grueling journey are John Paul’s twin convictions that a shepherd must preach to his flock and that his church can be an international beacon for morality in a world dangerously split between a handful of complacent rich and too many desperate poor.

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Meeting young people and honoring potential saints are papal favorites, but on the 63rd foreign trip of John Paul’s 16-year reign the international focus will be as much on his health as on the altar.

Last April, John Paul broke his right leg in a bathroom fall, the latest in a quickening number of medical alarms: He tripped on his robe and fractured his right arm in November, 1993, and had a large non-cancerous tumor removed from his intestine the year before that.

Slow recovery from surgery to repair the leg forced John Paul to cancel a planned October visit to the United States, and the Pope has seemed to Vatican observers to have aged dramatically since the accident.

John Paul’s determination to lead the world’s 950 million Catholics into the new millennium is undiminished, though, and his spirits were high as he opened a new page in a series of offshore pastoral visits that have made him history’s most traveled Pope.

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“Tell those who are interested back in Poland that things are not going badly for the Pope,” John Paul told Polish pilgrims at the Vatican last Friday.

“They say the Pope is getting old and that he can’t walk without a cane. But, one way or another, I’m still around. I’ve got my hair, and things aren’t so bad with my head either,” he joked.


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