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Pope arrives for Toronto youth event

With tens of thousands of young Catholic pilgrims waiting, Pope John Paul II arrived Tuesday for a week of World Youth Day festivities with those he calls the future of his church.

The frail pope, making his 97th foreign trip as the most-traveled pontiff in history, began an 11-day trip that also will take him to Guatemala and Mexico with a show of determination: He walked down the stairs from his jet instead of riding a lift, as in recent trips.

Bareheaded after wind blew off his skullcap, John Paul waved to a crowd of dignitaries, including Prime Minister Jean Chretien, before descending, one step at a time, with a cane in his right hand and an aide holding his left arm.

Later, he thanked Toronto for welcoming the nearly 200,000 pilgrims registered for World Youth Day, calling the event crucial for preserving hope in the young.

The 82-year-old pontiff departed Rome against the advice of aides who say the journey may be too much. While concerned about his health, those close to him say he is energized by the gathering of Catholic youth, whom he considers "the future and hope of the church and humanity."

Vatican Radio acknowledged that this year's low attendance _ millions have attended similar events in the past _ is attributed partly to the uncertainties of travel after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the sex abuse scandals that have shaken the church.

The pilgrims, ages 16 to 35, have come from 170 countries for activities that include catechism classes with bishops, a welcoming ceremony with the pope Thursday in downtown Toronto and an all-night vigil followed by a final Mass on Sunday.