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Pilgrimage From Krakow

After Grueling Bus Ride, Another Arduous Journey

Polish Group Waits Behind Thousands at Vatican to Pay Respects

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A18

VATICAN CITY, April 6 -- A glimpse of St. Peter's Basilica lifted the spirits of the weary Polish pilgrims as their three-bus convoy pulled into the center of Rome Wednesday morning, 25 hours and two minor mechanical breakdowns after they departed Krakow. But they quickly discovered that this was only the first stage of their 2,000-mile round-trip journey to honor the life of Pope John Paul II, their national hero and holy father to millions of Polish Catholics.

The next destination for the 145 pilgrims was the inside of the imposing and majestic St. Peter's, where the pope's body lay in state. To get there, however, they would first have to navigate an arduous path.

Ewa Kurcharska, left, is joined by Maria Bulka, right, and other Poles from Krakow as they wait in line for a last glimpse of Pope John Paul II before his funeral. Officials estimated it would take them 24 hours to reach St. Peter's. (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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At 11 a.m., the line for the viewing started under an arch just outside the walls of Vatican City. Although the Poles didn't know it yet, there were at least 150,000 people already standing ahead of them, packing the ancient streets and leaving little room to exhale. By the end of the day, local officials estimated that newly arrived pilgrims would need to stand for 24 hours before reaching the bier.

As the Poles joined the massive queue, a handful of other pilgrims in front of them fell down and were nearly trampled by the crowd. One of the leaders of the group from Krakow, the Rev. Jan Urbanski, sweated profusely under his clerical collar and black robe on a warm, sunny day. He got only a few hours of fitful sleep on the overnight bus ride. But he was in an ebullient mood.

"I am better and better," he said with an eager smile. "There are many things we should thank God for. We reached our destination. Nobody was hurt along the way. Now what we have to do is just wait."

Urbanski was not under the illusion that this stage of the pilgrimage would be easy. He recalled how a million people lined up in 2002 to celebrate Mass with the pope in a field outside Krakow. "We had to wait 14 hours in line that time, and it was wonderful," he said. "This time, I think it will be only eight hours or so."

But eight hours later, Urbanski and the Polish pilgrims had barely moved around the block. They couldn't even see St. Peter's Square. There were people stacked in front of them as far as the eye could see. Volunteers tossed them free bottles of water, but there was no food and nowhere to sit, except for the lucky few who found a stone ledge on the side of a building or brought along a camping stool.

More and more people came from all directions, and thousands of police officers and volunteers herded them behind barricades that resembled cattle chutes. The stone streets and sidewalks blistered the feet. People could leave the line for a brief respite, but few did so because there was no guarantee they would get back in. Sirens blared constantly as ambulances navigated the sea of human beings to carry away fallen pilgrims whose physical condition did not match their spiritual determination.

And yet, there was no complaining among the fatigued Polish travelers, at least none loud enough to hear. Three members of the group brought banner-sized white-and-red Polish national flags and waved them. Teenagers and young adults flirted and laughed and played tricks on one another.

For many of these pilgrims, suffering is an expected and welcome part of the equation. The tougher the journey, the more meaningful and memorable it would be. It's a way of paying homage to a pope who suffered terribly during his final days and final years, weakened by Parkinson's disease and other ailments.

For Ewa Kurcharska, a physician who is director of two medical clinics in Krakow, the example of how John Paul handled his suffering with grace and without complaint offered a powerful lesson to Christians on how to handle death and suffering with dignity. She said the lesson was also personal to her as a doctor, underlining the necessity of giving spiritual comfort to the sick and dying that she encounters in her practice.

"What struck me most was the power and strength of his suffering," she said. "During his last pilgrimage to Krakow, he was a sick, sick man. He showed the great impact that suffering can have."

"Knowing more about it and knowing how many ailments he had and how serious they were, it was definitely harder for me to watch, harder perhaps than for some other people," she said.

The line of pilgrims inched ahead at an excruciating pace. Every time the police lifted a barricade, the crowd rushed forward a few feet before slamming into another obstacle. Then more waiting, propped up by fatigued legs and squeezed among unwashed bodies.

Darkness fell, and tens of thousands of people stood ahead of the Poles, waiting for their final chance to see the pope. While they plan to attend his funeral on Friday, the Poles know there is almost no chance they will be admitted inside the basilica for the ceremonies, and will instead be forced to watch them on large-screen televisions.

Word passed down the line that the basilica was scheduled to close from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. for cleaning, raising the odds that this would turn into an all-night vigil, on the heels of their all-night bus voyage from Krakow. Things were delayed even more when President Bush and the first lady slipped into St. Peter's for a private visit.

Still, there were smiles all around. Slawek Garbien, 19, from the small town of Sulkowice, outside Krakow, kept an eye on his older sister and chatted with newfound friends in line. At 8 p.m., nine hours after getting off the bus and into the line, he still could not see St. Peter's Basilica, though people insisted it was just around the corner. He didn't seem to mind.

"Slowly to the goal," he said, with a tired but wide grin. "We must be faithful. We will make it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company