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Pope puts three Roman Catholics a step closer to sainthood

Thousands cheer struggling pontiff

LORETO, Italy -- A frail Pope John Paul II put three more Roman Catholics on the road to sainthood during a visit to a hilltop shrine yesterday, struggling at times but cheered on by 200,000 pilgrims.

He seemed drained, seated in a wheeled throne in glittering green vestments, at the end of the three-hour ceremony in 86-degree heat. The large crowd broke into applause when he told them: ''The pope greets you, supports you, and blesses you from the heart."

The 84-year-old pontiff, who has Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments, read his homily with difficulty. He left one portion to be read by an aide. But he seemed stronger than during his trip to Lourdes, France, three weeks ago.

John Paul did not speak of the Russian school tragedy. But a young man read a prayer -- ''for the dead, for the children, and for all the innocent victims."

More than 300 people, half of them children, were killed when terrorists stormed a school in southern Russia and held those inside hostage for 52 hours.

Organizers and police said at least 200,000 pilgrims showed up at Italy's leading Marian shrine, which overlooks the Adriatic Sea south of Ancona.

Security was tight, with police closing down roads into Loreto hours before the pope's arrival by Italian military helicopter from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

The trip was arranged around the beatification of three members -- a Spaniard and two Italians -- of the Christian organization Catholic Action.

John Paul has difficulty walking and standing, and aides wheel him around during his public appearances. Still, he has insisted on keeping up his travels, although Loreto could be the last trip of the year.

He has already visited Switzerland and France this year, and although he has been invited to Istanbul by an Orthodox leader, the Vatican has given no confirmation that the visit will take place.

It was the fifth trip to Loreto, Italy's leading Marian shrine, of his nearly 26-year papacy.

Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood. Yesterday's ceremony raises to 1,333 the number of Catholics John Paul has beatified, more than done by all his predecessors combined over the past 50 years.

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