Pope, in Poland, Honors John Paul
Friday, May 26, 2006
WARSAW, May 25 -- Pope Benedict XVI began a rare foreign pilgrimage Thursday with a trip to Poland, partly to burnish his relations with one of the most devoted Catholic flocks in the world but also to honor his predecessor, John Paul II, revered as a national hero here.
As soon as he stepped off his plane at the Warsaw airport, Benedict gave a greeting in Polish and declared that he had "come to follow in the footsteps" of John Paul's life. Tens of thousands of flag-waving Poles turned out on the capital's streets to give the German pontiff a welcome that was warm but muted compared with the receptions for John Paul on his frequent visits home.
"I have come to Poland, the beloved homeland of my great predecessor Pope John Paul II, in order to inhale, as he used to do, this atmosphere of faith in which you live," Benedict said in an address to priests at St. John's Cathedral.
Benedict's itinerary for his four-day visit includes visits to Krakow, the southern city where John Paul served as archbishop for more than a dozen years, and the nearby town of Wadowice, where the Polish pope was born.
The pope's final stop, on Sunday, will be the memorials at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, where he will meet with camp survivors and Jewish leaders. Given his German nationality and his personal history as a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth, his words and actions at Auschwitz are likely to draw enormous scrutiny.
"It is a great occasion for him to say something or to make a gesture that would resonate not just in Poland, but around the world," said Stanislaw Krajewski, a Jewish leader and co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, who counts himself as an admirer of Benedict. "Will he use that opportunity? I don't know, of course."
On Thursday, the pontiff's motorcade made a brief detour past the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the desperate 1943 revolt by Jews against the city's Nazi occupiers. Benedict made a gesture of blessing but did not stop as he rode past, disappointing Poles who had gathered at the site. The pope and his entourage also drove past two other memorials to the Polish resistance during World War II.
In comments to reporters on his plane before his arrival, Benedict said he was making the trip "first and foremost as a Catholic," and not as a German.
Because Poland suffered enormously during the Nazi invasion and occupation, many Poles still harbor a chilly view of their German neighbors. But many of those who turned out for Benedict said his elevation as pope had the potential to improve relations.
"He has a certain ability to unite people, and I think he wants to follow in the path of John Paul II," said Anna Krzych, 61, who traveled several hours from her home town near the German border to see Benedict.
Added her 59-year-old cousin, Zenon Kosinski: "John Paul II and this pope both lived through the Second World War and both knew what it meant, so hopefully this will help advance peace in this world."
President Lech Kaczynski welcomed the pope with similar sentiments. "Providence has deemed that a German has succeeded a Pole on the throne of Saint Peter," he said. "Our two peoples, who are very close, have often been separated by history. Today we feel that true reconciliation can only be achieved on a spiritual dimension."