Pope John Paul II arrives on ninth visit to his native Poland

Friday, August 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KRAKOW, Poland (AP) _ Pope John Paul II made an emotional return to his homeland Friday, walking steadily down the steps of his plane as his countrymen slowly sang ``We wish you all the best.''

Tens of thousands poured into the streets for a glimpse of Poland's favorite son, making what some fear is his last visit home. Assisted by aides and clutching the handrail, the ailing 82-year-old pope stopped to wave to the crowds several times as he descended to the tarmac.

The Polish-born pontiff remained standing during the Polish and Vatican anthems. Rather than kneeling to kiss the ground, he kissed a basket of wild flowers.

``Once again I greet Poland and all my countrymen,'' the pope said, speaking slowly but clearly. ``I do so with the very same sentiments of emotion and joy that I feel every time I return to my homeland.''

The crowd sang ``We wish you all the best'' _ a song apparently arranged specially for the pope's arrival.

The pope's ninth trip to his native Poland was both a nostalgic homecoming as well as an effort to demonstrate solidarity with his countrymen, many of whom are suffering economic hardships under capitalism and austerity measures to prepare Poland for European Union membership.

``In a special way, I salute all who bear the weight of suffering: the sick, people who are alone, the elderly, those who live in poverty and need.''

John Paul touched directly on the problems of unemployment and poverty in a changing Poland and stressed: ``Those who work within the spirit of Catholic social ethics cannot remain indifferent'' to the fate of those who don't have jobs and live in increasing poverty.

``To them and to all my fellow countrymen I bring today a message of hope that comes from Christ's word.''

Poland has not been immune to the sex abuse scandals that have shaken the Roman Catholic Church. Earlier this year, the archbishop of Poznan, a former member of John Paul's inner circle at the Vatican, was forced to resign followed allegations he abused seminarians.

The Vatican said it planned to respond Saturday to reports that it would reject portions of proposed U.S. bishop conference policy dealing with sex abuse.

The medieval capital where a young Karol Wotyla was ordained and eventually elevated to archbishop was festooned with flags, banners and posters heralding a visit many fear may be his last.

The pontiff has grown increasingly frail in the three years since he was last in Poland, beset by symptoms of Parkinson's disease as well as knee and hip ailments. During his four-day visit, 140 doctors and a hospital were on standby.

But the Polish faithful were hopeful the pope's visit to the places that nurtured his faith would invigorate the ailing pontiff.

``I trust that this visit will fortify not only us, here in Poland, but also your holiness,'' President Aleksander Kwasniewski said, greeting the pope.

The pope even made light of his condition.

``I want to apologize. The president is standing, the cardinal is standing, and I'm sitting. I'm sorry but I must admit that somebody erected some kind of a barrier here and I cannot stand up,'' he said, referring to a portable lectern from which he read his arrival speech.

Thousands of faithful waving yellow-and-white Vatican flags greeted the pope at the airport and along the route to the archbishop's residence where he once lived and will stay.

Arriving from throughout the country on packed trains and buses, pilgrims during the four-day papal visit were expected to number more than 4 million. To maintain order, authorities have banned sales of alcohol in the cities on the pope's itinerary.

The religious highlight of the trip will be the consecration Saturday of the God's Mercy basilica in Krakow's Lagiewniki district, a popular sanctuary dedicated to St. Faustine, a mystic nun.

The pontiff will say Mass for up to 2 1/2 million people in Krakow Sunday, making up for missing the service due illness on his last visit.

On Monday, John Paul celebrates the 400th anniversary of a monastery and a shrine in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, near his hometown of Wadowice _ which the pope will see from the helicopter on his way back to Krakow.

For many Poles, the papal visit is of both religious and political significance.

John Paul is credited inspiring Poles to defy communism during his first visit as pontiff in 1979. And during a 1983 visit, he imbued Poles suffering under the communists' crackdown on Solidarity with a sense of moral authority.

Now, many are looking to him for a message of courage that will help them negotiate economic disparities that have soured many on capitalism.

``I think that this visit is much harder, paradoxically, because the pope is coming to the country which is disappointed with democracy and with capitalism,'' said Maciej Izdebski, 50, in his small grocery store near the pope's former Tyniecka Street residence.

``In the past he could just say, 'Endure, believe in God, endure and freedom would come.' And now, what can he say now?''