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Pope Visits Divided Austrian Church

June 19, 1998

SALZBURG, Austria (AP) _ Pope John Paul II reached out to his flock Friday in a bid to calm a crisis in Austria’s Roman Catholic Church, rocked by dissent and sex scandals.

The frail 78-year-old John Paul, stooped and using a cane, was opening the third visit of his papacy to this Alpine nation.

Small crowds throughout Salzburg, a center of European culture, came out to greet the pope on an overcast day. Small children raised signs saying, ``We are with you.″

``I have come to you in Austria to bring you words of appreciation and encouragement,″ he told Catholics during Mass in Salzburg’s 14th-century cathedral.

Several times during his homily, the pope was interrupted by strong applause. Cheers became especially loud when he said he was confident that young people ``can again put a Christian face on the old Europe.″

But not all young people responded enthusiastically.

``The pope is old, I find it hard to identify with him,″ said Anne Pichler, a 21-year-old psychology student.

In an indication of the dissent that has shaken Austria since the pope’s 1988 visit, two young men standing along the pope’s motorcade route held up cardboard placards reading ``Papa Go Home″ and ``We Want the Dalai Lama.″

In the last decade, Austrian Catholics have led a movement demanding the church drop its requirement that priests be celibate, allow women into the priesthood and give greater voice to lay Catholics.

The ``We are the Church″ movement gathered a half-million signatures in Austria in 1995 and spread elsewhere in Europe and to the United States. Demonstrations by members of the movement were expected during the pope’s visit. John Paul has never showed any intention of making major changes in that church policy.

The Austrian church also has been rocked by sexual scandal.

The pope forced Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, accused of sexually molesting young boys, to relinquish all his duties in April. Groer had to go into exile in Germany, but likely will be allowed to return soon after the papal visit.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said he hopes the pope’s visit will show that, despite its problems, ``the Austrian church is not sick, that it is alive and well and full of vitality.″

After visiting Salzburg, the pope left for Vienna, where he was to spend the night at the papal nuncio’s residence.

The pope is scheduled to beatify three people, including a nun, Sister Restituta Kafka, who was beheaded by the Nazis in 1943. Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood.

John Paul was to return to Rome late Sunday.

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