70,000 Greet Pope for Open-Air Mass

A stronger-looking Pope John Paul II (search), appearing to thrive on the enthusiasm of young Swiss Roman Catholics, joined 70,000 people Sunday in celebrating his first open-air Mass abroad in nine months.

The largely youthful crowd erupted in cheers as the 84-year-old pontiff arrived and waved his right hand to the crowd as he was rolled across the large stage.

"Dear young friends," John Paul said in his sermon. "You should know that the pope likes you, accompanies you daily in his prayers, counts on your cooperation in the matter of the gospel and encourages you to proceed optimistically in the path of Christian living."

John Paul held up well through the 21/2 hour Mass.

At times his hands trembled and he had difficulty speaking, but when the pauses became long, the crowd encouraged him by cheering and he came back with vigor.

He spoke clearly in three of the languages of Switzerland — German, French and Italian — and in his native Polish to a contingent from his homeland.

But he appeared to tire somewhat as the day wore on. In a meeting with former members of the Vatican's Swiss Guard (search) Sunday afternoon, he read the opening and closing sentences of his prepared remarks thanking them for their service. But he had a bishop read the bulk of the short speech.

The pope then returned to Rome, taking off in an Alitalia jetliner from a military airbase near Bern at 7:03 p.m.

Even on Friday, when he received President Bush at the Vatican, John Paul's hands trembled badly and his speech was difficult to understand.

The trip to Switzerland was a test of the pope's condition, and his improved appearance would seem to have smoothed the way for further travel. Vatican officials have started planning a mid-August pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in Lourdes, France.

The visit to Bern was the 103rd of John Paul's 25-year papacy and his third to Switzerland. He told a youth rally on Saturday evening that he felt duty-bound to keep traveling.

"It's wonderful to be able to offer oneself until the end for the cause of the Kingdom of God," he said.

The pope, who has Parkinson's disease and crippling hip and knee ailments, repeatedly has refused any suggestion he step down.

In his sermon Sunday, the pope omitted several sentences from the prepared text that denounced mistreatment of any human being. The passage could have been interpreted as a reference to Iraqi prisoner abuse by U.S. forces, an issue the pope raised with Bush.

The Vatican did not explain the omission but regards the full written text as official.

"The image of God is reflected in each human being," the omitted portion said. "That is the basis for the deeper truth of the human being, which must in no case be denied or injured. Every insult to a human being is in the end directed at his creator, who loves him like a father."

The pope read the succeeding portion, which praised Switzerland for a great tradition of respect for humans as demonstrated by the Swiss-based international Red Cross, which has been complaining to U.S. officials for more than a year about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

The crowd, which was gathered in the Swiss capital's traditional Allmend assembly meadow, waved flags from various European and Latin American countries.

Young people poured water from the four major Swiss rivers — the Rhone, the Rhine, the Ticino and the Inn — into a marble font, which was then blessed by the pope as holy water and carried into the crowd for clergy to sprinkle on worshippers.

The pope's visit to Switzerland, one of the cradles of Protestantism, has met with some grumbling, indicating tensions remain between Swiss Protestants and Catholics after five centuries.

The Mass was meant to be ecumenical, but Switzerland's Federation of Protestant Churches (search) turned down an invitation to attend, noting that only Catholics would be allowed to take Communion.

Liberal Swiss Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kueng, who has been punished by the Vatican for failing to adhere to the pope's doctrine, said the pope's visit was orchestrated to avoid any criticism of church policy, such as the second-class role of women or celibacy of priests.

A group of theologians and other prominent Catholics who had called earlier for a mandatory retirement of age of 75 for popes said the visit showed that they were correct.

The pope's remarks were difficult to hear, and he spoke in well-worn generalities, said Xaver Pfister, a spokesman for the group.