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Pope puts faith in millennium

The Pope inaugurated the new year yesterday with a message of forgiveness and peace, urging the world to put past conflicts behind it and look forward instead to the jubilee celebrations that the Catholic Church is organising for the millennium.

John Paul's traditional greeting, delivered from the balcony of his private apartments in the Vatican, reflected many of his own personal concerns, as he looks back on a long life and searches for the physical strength to survive until 2000.

"May the Holy Virgin, the Mother of God, encourage us to begin this new year with gestures of love and, if necessary, reconciliation, to help build a better world marked by justice and peace," the Pope said. Earlier, while presiding over mass in St Peter's, he made mention of many of the world's persistent trouble spots, from the Middle East to Central Africa.

The 76-year-old pontiff looked in reasonable physical shape following his bout of abdominal surgery in October. He has deliberately taken it relatively easy over the Christmas period, skipping the main mass on 25 December for the first time in his 19-year reign.

He has a typically busy schedule ahead of him in the next 12 months, including trips to the Czech Republic, France, Brazil and possibly Cuba. His recent messages make it clear that he is looking further ahead, to the task he sees as his historical destiny, guiding the Church through 2000.

The Pope sees the millennium as an opportunity to re-evangelise the world and has urged the opening of purses for a programme of church-building, particularly in Rome.

First indications suggest that the jubilee celebrations in Rome will be much more about cashing in on tourism and the construction industry than any spiritual revival. The Pope, however, remains unbowed. In a New Year's Eve service in the Roman Jesuit church of Sant'Ignazio, the Pope said he had "special reason" to give thanks for the past year and the preparations under way for 2000.

The big question is whether he can survive. This most resolute and physically resilient of popes has been diagnosed with a form of Parkinson's disease and has a history of severe abdominal problems.