Pope Praises Women's 'Strength'

Pope John Paul II listens to hymns during a ceremony in the harbor of Dubrovnik where he celebrated a Mass on the second day of his five-day trip to Croatia, Friday, June 6, 2003. The Pope, on his 100th overseas trip, will tour Croatia till June 9. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, Pool)
Pope John Paul II hailed women for their "sensitivity, generosity and strength" Friday as he beatified a Croatian nun who devoted her life to poor children.

The 83-year-old pope, making his landmark 100th foreign pilgrimage, praised the virtues of women everywhere in his Mass in Dubrovnik, an ancient coastal resort devastated by Serb shelling during Croatia's 1991 war for independence from Yugoslavia.

Addressing thousands of cheering pilgrims at the city's scenic port, John Paul beatified Marija Petkovic, who died in Rome in 1966 after founding a religious community that cared for impoverished children in Croatia and Latin America. Beatification is the last step before possible sainthood.

The pope praised her "indomitable courage," and he singled out wives and mothers for their "lofty vocation" in nurturing children and providing love and stability to families.

"I thank you, dear women, because by your sensitivity, generosity and strength, you enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic," John Paul said, speaking in Croatian as the sails of small boats on a nearby cove flapped in a gentle breeze.

"The frenetic pace of modern life can lead to an obscuring or even a loss of what is truly human," he said. "Perhaps more than in other periods of history, our time is in need of that genius which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance."

John Paul's praise notwithstanding, the Vatican long has been criticized for its refusal to ordain women as priests or to allow women to serve in top posts in Rome. Some liberal Catholics, and people who do not belong to the Church, have also denounced the Vatican's opposition to birth control, abortion and divorce.

John Paul's trip, which will take him to five cities all over overwhelmingly Catholic Croatia, will test his age. The pope suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments, and aides had to help him board Thursday's flight from Rome.

On Friday, he was wheeled to the harborside Mass platform on a hydraulic chair, where he sat hunched over and flush-faced in balmy summer temperatures that were 86 degrees and climbing.

Although a one-day trip to Bosnia is still on for later this month, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, suggested that a proposed visit to Mongolia in August could be dropped.

"It's a long way," Sodano told reporters Thursday, noting the predominantly Buddhist country has only 170 Catholics and no bishop. "It also depends on the condition of the pope."

Despite his difficulty walking and standing, John Paul has appeared stronger in recent months, with aides insisting it is due to physical therapy and no "miracle" medicine.

His stop in Dubrovnik resonated among Croats, who remembered watching with horror as shells smashed into the city's elegant Renaissance palaces, ancient fortresses and stone churches.

Organizers said the city's population of 40,000 nearly doubled for Friday's Mass.

Dubrovnik also teemed with police, who cleared the harbor of many ships and yachts as a security precaution. The Interior Ministry said a man phoned in a bomb threat just before the pope's arrival Thursday on the Adriatic island of Krk. Police searched the airfield but found nothing.

More than a decade after the war, ethnic tensions remain and nationalism is resurging, worrying leaders who are struggling to put Croatia's turbulent past behind it and prepare the country for membership in the European Union, perhaps as early as 2007.

The pope expressed his affection for this Catholic bastion in the Balkans. He has visited twice before, in 1994 and 1998.

About 80 percent of Croatia's 4.5 million people are Roman Catholics, and the Vatican was among the first to recognize the country's statehood in January 1992, six months after it declared independence from Yugoslavia.

On Friday, John Paul reached out to "those whose lives were forever changed by the grief of losing a family member in the cruel war of the 1990s or by other bitter troubles which they have endured."