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In Poland

Poland Says Goodbye to Its National Hero

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A38

KRAKOW, Poland, April 2

Millions of Poles wept, prayed and said goodbye Saturday night to their national hero, packing chapels and town squares to remember the life of the priest from Krakow who overcame Nazi invasion and Communist rule to lead a resurgence of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland and the world.

The tolling of medieval bells announced Pope John Paul II's death from the hilltop cathedral that overlooks Krakow and has served for centuries as the final resting place of Poland's saints and monarchs. Wawel Cathedral is the place where John Paul celebrated his first Mass as a priest, and many Poles would like to see him buried there.

A woman clutches a rosary in the southern city of Krakow, where Pope John Paul II celebrated his first Mass as a priest. (Photos Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Across the world Saturday, people offered words and symbolic tributes when news of the death arrived.

In the Middle East, John Paul was remembered both for his efforts at improving ties between the Catholic Church and the Jewish faith and for his advocacy of the rights of Palestinians. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called the pope's death "a great loss for all humanity." Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, said John Paul "devoted his life to defending the values of peace, freedom, justice and equality for all races and religions."

In Bethlehem, bells chimed at the Church of the Nativity, which tradition says marks the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

In Paris, hundreds of mourners lit candles at the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church and on the cobblestone square outside, as organ music filtered onto the terraces of nearby cafes.

In Beijing at the city's largest Roman Catholic Cathedral, believers sang hymns and clasped their hands tightly in prayer, some clutching rosary beads.

"God has called him to rest in his arms," the Rev. Sun Shangen told the congregation. "Today let's keep him in our thoughts during our prayers."

[On Sunday in the Philippines, churchgoer Sandra Santa Cruz told the Associated Press, "I am happy for him because we all know that he is now with Jesus in heaven."]

But the passing of the 84-year-old pontiff was most personal and emotional for Poles than for most of the world. While he led the world's Catholics for 26 years, the third-longest tenure in church history, he was a central figure in the lives of people in Krakow and southern Poland for a half-century.

"He has always been a light in my life," said Katareyna Nicpom, 25, as she left a vigil in Krakow, clutching a red candle and wiping away tears. "I never realized he could be gone one day. Now I feel alone, and I know there won't be such a person ever again."

Across Poland, people gathered in places once graced by the presence of John Paul. In the Franciscan church in the heart of Krakow, people filed past the bench where he was known to pray regularly. At a cemetery near the Wisla River, they stood around the gravesites of his parents.

During the last moments of the pope's life, several thousand people massed outside the archbishop's residence in Krakow, where John Paul stayed during visits from Rome. "He has always been an inspiration to young people," said Elizabieta Maczka, 24, who said the pope influenced her to take a job working with the disabled and elderly in Krakow. "He didn't speak like a priest. It was something more -- you could really feel it."

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