POMPEII, Italy – Defying skeptics who thought the ailing pontiff's travel days were finished, Pope John Paul II (search) flew to a shrine Tuesday near the ruins of ancient Pompeii and prayed for world peace.
Only last month, the 83-year-old pontiff, stooped and slowed by Parkinson's disease (search) and other health problems, struggled through a four-day pilgrimage to Slovakia, and a cardinal last week said John Paul was approaching his dying days.
John Paul's voice sounded weary and he slurred his words as he read opening prayers for peace. Some 30,000 pilgrims applauded in encouragement.
After an hour's flight from Vatican City (search) by Italian air force helicopter, John Paul arrived in a landing area at the edge of the ancient ruins of Pompeii. He was driven by "popemobile" to the sanctuary here dedicated to the rosary.
Along the route, John Paul, sitting in an upholstered chair in the open-topped white vehicle, waved constantly to joyous pilgrims.
The pilgrims packed the square in front of the shrine, many standing under palm trees.
Several dire assessments of his health recently by top prelates heightened concern over whether his physical frailty allows him to continue in the papacy.
But apparently bouncing back from an intestinal ailment that forced him to skip a public audience at the Vatican on Sept. 24., John Paul led a more than two-hour-long canonization ceremony Sunday in St. Peter's Square.
The Vatican devised a mini-lift to allow John Paul to resume using a helicopter, which he used to fly regularly in his frequent trips. Parkinson's plus knee problems make it impossible for John Paul to climb stairs to board.
For several months now, John Paul has rarely been seen walking or even standing in public. He navigates the vast spaces of St. Peter's Square and Basilica in a kind of throne-like chair on wheels guided by aides.
"I love the pope. He's the most holy man on Earth," said Ella McLoughlin, a pilgrim from Worcester, Mass. "I think God still wants to use him. That's why he's still alive."
Pompeii, with its more than century-old shrine dedicated to the rosary, is very dear to the pope. He considers the rosary a powerful form of prayer and a way to invoke peace.
He began talking about a return to the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary when he flew over Pompeii in a helicopter on his way to visit the island of Ischia in May 2002.
The sanctuary draws some 4 million faithful each year to Pompeii, a sleepy town flanking the sprawling ruins of the ancient Roman city buried by ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.