BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - Slumped in his chair and slurring his words, Pope John Paul II struggled Thursday at the start of a trip to press Roman Catholic values on skeptical Europeans.
The frail 83-year-old pope, who is battling Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments, looked pale and short of breath as he failed to read his full arrival speech for the first time in 102 foreign trips. An aide read most of the rest.
Later, visiting a cathedral in the western city of Trnava, John Paul thanked the crowd in Polish for its warm welcome, but left it to Slovak Cardinal Jozef Tomko to read his brief prayer service remarks.
Just before the service, Vatican officials wheeled the pope into the sacristy and two aides brought in what appeared to be medical equipment. John Paul emerged 10 minutes later.
Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls dismissed the idea of any medical emergency, saying if medical equipment was moved around the church, it was not for the pope.
On other foreign visits, aides have read parts of the pope's speeches but never his arrival texts. His feeble appearance Thursday will raise questions about the ability of history's most-traveled pope to keep on the road.
Navarro-Valls said the pontiff would "absolutely" finish his third visit to Slovakia, a grueling four-day pilgrimage to four cities in this predominantly Catholic nation that suffered during decades of Communist rule.
Although this is John Paul's last scheduled trip this year, Vatican planners are considering invitations from Switzerland, Austria and the pope's native Poland for next year.
"I don't see any real obstacle" to future travel, Navarro-Valls said. Relying on others to help the pope read, he said, "is logical to ease his burdens."
As he has in recent appearances, John Paul remained seated in a throne-like chair wheeled by aides. It took him 20 minutes to disembark from the papal plane on a hydraulic lift.
"Even with certain health problems, he came and sacrificed himself for Slovakia, because he loves our people," President Rudolf Schuster said after meeting with the pope.
Reaching out to Slovakia, which joins the European Union next year, the pope touched on what has become a recurrent theme: a plea to Europeans to resist materialism and reaffirm traditional family values in the face of liberal abortion laws and growing legal recognition of homosexual unions.
"In the near future, your country will become a full member of the European community," John Paul said in his arrival remarks.
"Dearly beloved, bring to the construction of Europe's new identity the contribution of your rich Christian tradition," he said. "Do not be satisfied with the sole quest for economic advantages. Great affluence, in fact, can also generate great poverty."
Cautioning that it would take "sacrifices and difficulties," the pope called on Slovaks to build "a society respectful of human life in all its expressions, that promotes the family as a place of reciprocal love and growth of persons, that seeks the common good and is attentive to the needs of the weakest."
Cheering well-wishers waving banners that read, "We love you," greeted the pope. But among the crowd were gay and lesbian activists protesting what they say is a growing intrusion of the church in public and private life.
One demonstrator held a banner which read: "I have a different opinion - will you burn me?"