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Slovakia: Pope Stresses Importance Of Family During Mass

Pope John Paul today delivered the first Mass of his four-day trip to Slovakia. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox joined the crowds of faithful in the town of Banska Bystrica.

Banska Bystrica, Slovakia; 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It's early morning, and there are three hours to go before Pope John Paul says Mass in the main square of Banska Bystrica, some 230 kilometers northeast of Bratislava.

But already there's a steady stream of pilgrims making their way toward the town center, and the streets surrounding the cobblestoned square are soon packed with thousands of people.

Woman: "We don't have tickets. Where should we go?"

Organizer: "If you don't have tickets, you have to go round this way (points on map) into one of these areas."

Woman: "So we can't get on the square?"

Organizer: "Not on the square."

Woman: "So where can we get tickets? There's no chance now?"

There's no such disappointment for Veronika Prochazkova. She's been standing near the front by the choir since early this morning.

"It's a wonderful feeling," she says. "What I'm taking for myself from this is that I want to begin again from the beginning, because this is a beginning for me. I want to live fully for Jesus and for the Holy Father."

Rain falls, and the square becomes a patchwork of umbrellas. Organizers are worried that people are being crushed against one another. Could they please give each other more room?

While everyone waits for the pope, a youth choir sings "Happy Day."

The pope finally arrives, his protective "popemobile" snaking along the square to an altar erected in front of a column of the Virgin Mary. "We love the pope! We love the pope!"

The pope today appears stronger than when he arrived yesterday in Bratislava. Then, he faltered during his sermon, and a church representative had to take over.

Even though he looks less tired today, again he delivers only the first and last parts of his sermon, turning it over to Cardinal Jozef Tomko to read the rest. It recalls the sufferings of people under the communists -- "a bleak regime of not so many years ago."

But mostly the pope's sermon focuses on the importance of the family.

"Parents must educate their children to a correct freedom -- the family is the nursery where little plants, the new generations, are nurtured. In the family the future of the nation is forged."

He continues: "Dear brothers and sisters, let us make room for God! In the variety and richness of diverse vocations, each one is called, like Mary, to accept God into our own life and to travel along the paths of the world with him, proclaiming his Gospel and bearing witness to his love."

The pope's next Mass is tomorrow in Roznava. On 14 September, he is due to give an open-air Mass in Bratislava's huge Petrzalka housing project, where he will beatify a nun and a bishop persecuted by the communist regime.