The 82-year-old pope, celebrating mass at a shrine where he often prayed as a child, prayed for spiritual and physical strength to continue as Parkinson's disease and arthritis wrack his body. "Most Holy Mother, Our Lady of Calvary, obtain also for me strength in body and spirit, that I may carry out to the end the mission given me by the Risen Lord," the pope said in a prayer he composed himself to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the consecration of the Kalwaria Zebrzydowska shrine.
The statement is the clearest to date that the pope does not intend to step down, despite persistent rumors he might become the first pontiff to do so since Celestine V in the 13th century. Most recently Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls quashed speculation that John Paul would retire to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, the sanctuary he often visited as a child and later as archbishop of Krakow.
During the four-day visit that retraced many of the steps of his life the pope has several times been overcome with emotion, reminiscing and uncharacteristically speaking of his own death. At age 82, John Paul has reigned 24 years, one of the longest pontificates in history.
At the shrine to the Virgin Mary the pope also asked her to protect children, as the Vatican grapples with a burgeoning child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. "Cover children with the mantle of your protection, lest they be scandalized," he prayed.
At the World Youth Day in Canada last month the pope said the "harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame," but urged Catholics not to be discouraged by the failings of some priests.
Pedophilia allegations against Catholic clergy in the United States have forced at least three senior Church officials to step down. In Poland sexual harrasment charges forced the resignation one of the pontiff's former personal aides, Poznan Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, although he denied the charges.
John Paul finished the prayer at the Basilica of Our Lady of Angels by entrusting to the Holy Mother the future of the Church and Poland, as well as his life and ministry. Although often appearing tired since arriving Friday, the pope has also seemed to draw strength from returning to the city where he studied, worked and served as archbishop before becoming pope in 1978. Under a hot sun on Sunday the pope forcefully delivered one of his longest homilies in recent months in a mass attended by a European-record crowd of 2.2 million faithful.
The pope has repeatedly thanked his compatriots for their warm hospitality and support, but several times directly broached the subject that this may be his last visit home. "I would like to ask to all the members of the parish to pray for the pope, now when he is alive and after he is dead," the pope said to wellwishers on Sunday as he passed Krakow's St. Florian church where he served as a priest in the late 1940s.
The visit has also been an emotional one for the overwhelmingly Catholic Poles, who revere the pope for his moral support as they forced the communists from power in the 1980s, and many of whom also fear this may be his last. "We all feel this may be the last chance we have to see the pope even though we pray very much for his health," said Helena, 50, who attended the mass Monday at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska with her 16-year-old daughter.