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No Path to Rome Too Steep For These Polish Pilgrims

Bus Caravan Struggles Over Alps to Pope's Funeral

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page A01

KLAGENFURT, Austria, April 5 -- Thirteen hours into the ride, the bus's engine gave out, strained by the long nighttime haul up a winding Alpine road. The lights went out. Spirits dimmed among the 45 Polish pilgrims aboard, but they knew what to do. As the driver tinkered with the engine in the darkness, they helped him along with silent prayers.

In five minutes, success -- the engine resumed its comforting rumble. Lights burned bright again and there was elation in the cabin, then a communal prayer of thanks. Bus A-2, two large portraits of Pope John Paul II affixed to its windshield, began its labored climb again, headed across the Alps to Rome, for the funeral of Poland's most famous son.

Syr Tomek, 7, carrying a booster seat, goes to board a bus in Krakow with his father, Marek, and mother, Sliwice, for the 26-hour trip. It was not certain the buses would be allowed into central Rome. (Michael Robinson-Chavez -- The Washington Post)

"It was my choice to get on a bus, even though I could have gotten on a plane," said Ewa Kucharska, 46, a doctor from Krakow, Poland, who came with five colleagues from her medical practice. "I decided to cope with all the inconveniences so I could demonstrate my love and admiration for the Holy Father."

"There will be a lot of uncertainty," she said, from her seat. "At the same time, this is a moment that unites people from all over the world, and I wish to be a part of it."

By bus, by car, by air and train, Poles are headed en masse to Rome -- travel agents suggest the number may be 200,000; officials in Rome are concerned that as many as 2 million could arrive from Poland. Airlines are overbooked, even with the addition of dozens of charter flights. The Web site of a business that specializes in organizing special pilgrim rail packages crashed after too many people tried to sign up.

The overland route to Rome from Krakow -- the longtime home of John Paul -- curves through Eastern and Central Europe for about 1,000 miles, past brown farm fields in southern Poland and the Czech Republic, along the Austrian foothills and over the Alps. The tour guide figured it would take about 26 hours, motoring through the night, though she had no idea whether the buses would be allowed to enter central Rome, let alone get near Vatican City and St. Peter's Square.

Nobody was complaining; the 140 pilgrims on this and two other buses traveling in a caravan were single-minded about their mission to reach Rome to pay their respects to John Paul and attend his funeral Friday.

Unlike most other mourners from around the globe, virtually all of these pilgrims from southern Poland have stories to tell about personal encounters with John Paul.

Mariola Ostafin, 28, was clutching an envelope with three blown-up glossy photos of her and her husband, Grzegorz, dressed in their wedding finery. They are kneeling in St. Peter's Square, wearing huge smiles and shedding tears of joy as John Paul lays his right hand on their heads and blesses their marriage. The photos were taken 10 years ago, and Ostafin had decided to go back to Rome and leave one behind in the pope's honor.

"It is hard to find the right words to describe my feelings for him," she said. "It was too good to be true that the Holy Father would give my marriage such a blessing. It was such a great moment, such a miracle. So I really wanted to say farewell to the Holy Father in person and to express my gratitude for all that he did for me."

The group also includes priests whom he ordained, babies he baptized, former parishioners. Many have made multiple pilgrimages to Rome. During John Paul's 26-year reign, Polish pilgrims enjoyed a special status in the Vatican and could usually count on the pope to grant an audience to visitors from his native land.

Ostafin also came bearing messages from others in her home town of Sulkowice, a farming community of 6,500. She and her teenage brother, Slawek, were the only ones from Sulkowice who were able to get a seat on a bus for Rome. When townspeople found out they were going, they gave them an official proclamation to take to the Vatican on their behalf.

"Everyone in Sulkowice is in mourning," reads the letter, which is addressed directly to John Paul. "We would like to assure you that we will follow your teachings and the messages you left for us."

Three buses departed Krakow on Tuesday morning. They cruise at a top speed of about 55 mph when the roads permit it. Every four hours, the buses stop so the drivers can rotate and people can stretch. At a truck stop somewhere east of Vienna, the pilgrims piled out and made a dash for cigarettes, coffee and the restrooms. It was going to be a long night.

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