BANJA LUKA, Bosnia, JUNE 22, 2003 ( Convinced that only reconciliation can guarantee a future for Bosnia-Herzegovina, John Paul II asked for forgiveness for the offenses committed by Catholics in the country.

The Pope's statement, which had enormous repercussions in a country drained by the 1992-95 war, resounded at the key moment of his 10-hour apostolic visit: the Mass in which he beatified Ivan Merz (1896-1928).

"From this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask Almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity, and freedom also by children of the Catholic Church, and to foster in all the desire for mutual forgiveness," the Holy Father implored.

"Only in a climate of true reconciliation will the memory of so many innocent victims and their sacrifice not be in vain, but encourage everyone to build new relationships of fraternity and understanding," he added.

The eucharistic celebration, which more than 50,000 people, was celebrated next to the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Banja Luka.

Earlier, at the welcome ceremony at the Banja Luka airport, John Paul II centered his address on reconciliation, which calls for "healing wounds and achieving a genuine purification of memory through mutual forgiveness."

"The root of every good and, sadly, of every evil is in the depth of the heart," he said. "It is there that change must occur, making it possible to renew the fabric of society and to establish human relationships which favor cooperation between the vital forces present in the country."

The Pope's 101st apostolic visit abroad sought, above all, to sketch a realistic future for the Balkans, a peninsula that he visited June 5-9, to offer Croatia the same message.

He addressed young people in particular, to whom he suggested the example of Ivan Merz, who dedicated his life to educate youth and to promote love of the Eucharist.

"I invite you not to step back, not to yield to the temptation to become discouraged, but to multiply initiatives which will make Bosnia-Herzegovina once more a land of reconciliation, encounter and peace," he said during the beatification Mass.

"Do not seek a more comfortable life elsewhere, do not flee from your responsibilities and expect others to resolve problems, but resolutely counter evil with the power of good," the Pontiff added.

According to data provided by the local Church, 70% of the young people want to leave the country because of its dismal economy. Unemployment affects 43% of the population, and a staggering 81% of young people.

The Pope concluded his address at the welcome ceremony by appealing to the European Union to accept Bosnia-Herzegovina, in order to create "a context of prosperity, freedom and peace."

The Holy Father's visit took place amid intense security measures. Police were out in force, and all bars were closed in Banja Luka as a precaution.

The papal visit ended with a meeting with the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, composed of the Orthodox Metropolitan of Sarajevo, the Catholic archbishop of Sarajevo, the head of the Muslim community, and the president of the local Jewish community.