The market place here, "Red Army Square," was filled with thousands of Catholics singing "God Take Care of Poland" today as John Paul II came home to the little town where he was born and grew up, and where, he said, "so many good things happened to me."

For the pontiff, the warmth and gaiety of his midday reception here undoubtedly was especially welcome. Only hours later he would journey 25 miles up the road to Oswiecim, where during the dark days of Nazi occupation millions of his countrymen and others perished in the death camp known as Auschwitz.

In his home town, there was only joy and fond memories. Indeed, nobody could remember that the pope had ever stepped out of line from the time he was born here in May 1920 until he left 18 years later.

Helena Szczepanska, a sweet-faced 89-year-old former neighbor who used to baby-sit for the young Karol Wojtyla and rock his carriage in the small courtyard below the family apartment, said the only trouble he ever caused was occasionally running around the yard too much.

"But even then he always bowed to me," she said. "His mother used to yell up to us and say, 'You will see what a great man will grow from this baby.' We all used to laugh at her and say she had a loving heart but could not predict the future. But everyone fussed over him as if he was a prince, so you can never tell."

Wladyslaw Stanek, a priest who was a coworker in a transportation company with Wojtyla in Krakow in 1943, remembers that "he was the kind of person you noticed. He was extremely different."

Wadowice ordinarily is a small sleepy town of about 15,000 persons in southwestern Poland. But today the pope, and some of his friends who grew up here reflected on these surroundings and how they helped shape the man who eventually would become one of the most important figures in the world.

Zbigniew Silkoski, 60, a schoolmate of the young Wojtyla, said Wadowice was not just any town. The secondary school here, the only one in the region and therefore attended by students from many towns, "stressed classical literature and writing and so we were brought up in this neoclassical tradition and it helped shape us."

Monsignor Edward Zacher, now in his 80s, was the pope's first religion teacher and has remained a friend. He greeted the pontiff today, embraced him and asked that the pope always keep the people of this town "in your mind and heart."

The pontiff arrived here by helicopter from nearby Krakow, landed in a local soccer field, stepped out and immediately joked with the mayor by asking, "Is Wadowice far from here?" As he rode in an open car into the center of the small town, church bells rang, bands played, people cheered and sang. The pope, seeming to enjoy it all, joined in and tapped his foot to the rhythm when he was not singing.

The pontiff has drawn enormous crowds and warmth through each of his six days in Poland, demonstrating the affection and pride that he attracts as a person, religious leader and successful fellow countryman. On some days it is more noticeable than on others, however, and today at Wadowice was one or those days. CAPTION: Picture, Pope John Paul II waves to crowds assembled in the central square of his home town, Wadowice, Poland. AP