"Do not be afraid."
Outside, the sky is overcast and gray, giving way to darkness and the falling rain and a sense of the inevitable.
In the rectory, the Rev. Klemens Dabrowski, wearing a black cassock, is watching Polish-language television. He is more than halfway around the world from the plains of eastern Poland, where he was born and worked the fields as a young man. Now in his middle years, the glory of his youth and of Pope John Paul II's greatest hours fading into the past, he is reciting the phrase that shaped his life, that of his nation and a vast swath of the world caught in the terrors of communism.
"Do not be afraid," Dabrowski repeats in his accented English, rolling a hand forward with each word. "It was the first sentence he said to us in Poland, to the world. 'Don't be afraid.' Don't fear to work, to think, to walk out on the water. God has a special plan for each of us."
He looks down at his lap.
Early Friday evening. The house quiet. The clock ticking toward the evening Mass, perhaps the last he will conduct in the pope's lifetime. Far away, in Rome, in Warsaw, in larger parishes the world over, the television shows thousands who have gathered to pray in the pope's final hours.
Here in this quiet rectory in Silver Spring, Dabrowski -- 44, thin, bearded, a priest since he was 20 -- sits alone. He is pastor of the Washington area's only Polish Catholic parish, Our Lady Queen of Poland. The services and most church documents are in the language of the old country. The church, a small, Gothic structure with stained-glass windows and pews that tend to creak, sits in a quiet neighborhood next to a cemetery and just north of the Beltway.
The hours are not easy now. He crosses and recrosses his legs. Looks at the muted television each time the scene changes. He is trying to avoid tears.
The pope is the pope, of course, spiritual leader of one of the world's largest religions, with more than 1 billion followers.
But to Poland, the small nation trapped on the northern plains of Eastern Europe, where the weight of history has often been crushing, he is Karol Wojtyla, first and last. He was born in the unassuming town of Wadowice and later became the first non-Italian pope in centuries.
He used that position to take on the Soviet Union, which controlled Poland and the other nations of the Eastern Bloc as pawns.
Do not be afraid.
He said it before Solidarity was a force, before Lech Walesa was a Nobel laureate.
Do not be afraid.