From all over Poland, they came to Warsaw to see the start of Pope John Paul II's second pilgrimage to his homeland.
As the pope drove into Warsaw from the airport, the crowds in the streets were quiet. Led by priests with loudspeakers, they sang hymns and prayed as they waited for the papal motorcade.
It was not until the pope reached the capital's Old Town that he heard the first shouts of "Solidarity" and saw his countrymen waving V-for-victory hand signs in support of the banned independent union movement.
Tonight, a good-humored crowd of tens of thousands surged down the streets toward the center of the city, chanting Solidarity slogans and singing the national anthem in an impromptu political demonstration.
Many of those who turned out said they dreamed of recreating the spirit of national self-confidence that blossomed after the pope's first trip here in June 1979 and withered following the crushing of Solidarity in December 1981.
Anna, a student from Lodz who was in Warsaw's Castle Square six hours before the pope arrived, said she was hoping the visit would produce "a renewal of the Holy Spirit" and "the growth of a feeling of national unity." Asked which was more important, she said it was impossible to separate the two as Poland's Catholic Church always has been identified with the nation.
In the cloister of St. Anne's Church, pilgrims gathered around a floral cross laid out in memory of the late cardinal, Stefan Wyszynski. As some sang hymns accompanied by a priest playing a guitar, others read the pro-Solidarity slogans that had been scattered around the cloister.
One sign in the form of a picture of the pope said "Pray for us" and was signed "Solidarity." Next to it a pamphlet addressed to the underground Solidarity leader here, Zbigniew Bujak, read: "Zbyszek, we are with you, we trust you."
Nearby, street hawkers were selling homemade crucifixes and metal badges of the monument in Gdansk built by Solidarity to commemorate workers killed during food riots in December 1970.
Apartment buildings throughout the city were decorated with the Polish colors of red and white and the Vatican colors of yellow and white plus portraits of the pope.
During the next week, 12 million Poles--one-third of the population--are expected to see the pope. Many are traveling either by themselves or in church-organized groups to catch a glimpse of the former bishop of Krakow who in 1978 became the first non-Italian pope since 1523.
Among the pilgrims are many from northern Poland and the Baltic ports, the major area of the country excluded from the papal itinerary. While former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa waited to see whether he would be allowed to meet the pope, several hundred fellow workers from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk came here by train.
A bicycle pilgrimage from Gdansk to Warsaw was organized by one enterprising priest, the Rev. Stanislaw Sloma, for more than 50 students and workers. Sloma said many more pilgrims would have joined had it not been for Poland's desperate shortage of bicycles--one of the side-effects of the country's economic crisis.
As the pilgrims bicycled across the flatlands of northern Poland, they were greeted by waving children and farmers offering them tomatoes and strawberries. The only unpleasant incident during the five-day ride was the confiscation by police of a homemade Solidarity banner.
A doctor with the group said it would be wrong to expect any "sensations" as a result of the papal visit.
"What is happening in Poland is much more sophisticated and subtle than that," he said. "What we hope for is not any sensational political upheaval but a moral rejuvenation that will enable us to keep smiling even if the police attack us. Solidarity will be reborn--but inside us."
An engineering student from Gdansk Polytechnic said he believed the message the pope wanted to convey was contained in the choice of Rafal Kalinowski, a nobleman exiled to Siberia after the failed Polish insurrection of 1863, as a candidate for beatification. He later became an outstanding monk and educator and is being held up by the church as an example to Poles of how they should behave in adversity.
"Times are difficult now as well, even if we are not being sent to Siberia," the student remarked. "Just as in the insurrections of the last century, what has been created has been destroyed. Kalinowski's example shows how we can start all over again by changing ourselves from within."
A shipyard worker added: "At the moment we feel lost--as if we don't know where to go or what to do. The pope will show us. He will help create a situation in which it's possible for us to look each other in the eyes again."