Berserkistan Navigator In Slovenia, Pope John Paul Honors
Slovenians In Their Quest for Peace

By Caroline Drees

LJUBLJANA, May 18 (Reuters) — A visit to Slovenia by Pope John Paul turned into a double celebration on Saturday of his 76th birthday and the former Yugoslav republic's freedom from communist rule. Almost 100 Slovenian schoolchildren greeted the Pope with songs at the start of his day, wishing him happy birthday as he looked down from a second-floor cloistered balcony of the Ljubljana archbishop's residence.

The Polish-born Pontiff, in jovial mood during his 20 minute encounter with the young choir, later came down to join them in the inner courtyard where they gave him gifts. "Hmm. So you're seven, eight, 12,'' he told the children. "I was eight once but now I'm 76," he said, adding he was happy to be born in May because the month was dedicated to mothers.

"On this day, I have to thank my mother who gave me life," he said, speaking a mixture of Italian and Polish that was translated into Slovenian by a clergyman. The Pope, almost killed in an assassination attempt in 1981, has shown no sign of relaxing his travel schedule despite intestinal surgery and a hip replacement operation since 1992. He has appeared in good health, though at times tired, since he arrived in Slovenia on Friday for a three-day visit, his 71st abroad on a pilgrimage that has taken him almost one million km (625,000 miles) since his election in 1978.

In a speech to 75,000 worshippers at an open-air mass at the capital's racecourse, he hailed Slovenia's independence from former Yugoslavia five years ago. "In the course of its history, your Christian community has endured harsh trials and in more recent times the horrors of two world wars," the Pope said. "How could we forget the violent communist revolution? To the suffering caused by foreign occupation was added the scourge of civil war, in which brother raised his hand against brother."

Recalling priests, nuns and Roman Catholics imprisoned and killed under communist repression of the Church, he said: "They now implore God for reconciliation, peace and concord for all parts of the nation."

The Vatican was one of the first states to recognise Slovenia's independence following a 10-day war against the Serbian-led Yugoslav federal army in 1991 that preceded longer and bloodier conflicts in neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia. Bishops from throughout former Yugoslavia, including Sarajevo's Cardinal Vinko Puljic and Belgrade Archbishop France Perko, were among concelebrants at the morning mass.

"For 50 years under communism we had to wear civilian clothes, now we are allowed to show our faith," said one Slovenian nun in the crowd, Sister Agneta. Members of the small local Serbian Orthodox Church were also at the mass and were greeted in Serbian by the Pope. He was later scheduled to travel to Postojna, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Ljubljana, for a youth rally almost certain to turn into another birthday celebration.

The Pope has used his visit to warn Slovenians against replacing communism with "unbridled capitalism." He returned to the theme on Saturday, telling the mass that the 20th century had been "bathed in the blood of innocents and martyrs" because of "ideologies that hold God in contempt."

On his way to celebrate mass a small group of demonstrators held up a banner reading: "Banning abortion kills women.'' John Paul has made a firm stand against abortion and contraception.

Additional resources
Berserkistan, May 17 · Security Tight for Pope's Visit to Slovenia
Vatican Radio News Today's Newscast in Real Audio

Berserkistan is a world news service of Michael Linder Productions, Inc.
©1995-1996, All Rights Reserved