Pope begins nine-day pilgrimage through a greatly transformed Poland

June 02, 1991|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

WARSAW -- Pope John Paul II, arriving in the northern city of Koszalin, began a nine-day pilgrimage yesterday through his homeland, a country transformed since his last visit by the fall of communism.

Poles welcomed him as a moral authority. But unquestioning adulation has vanished with communism, and a new critical spirit now poses a challenge to the church he heads.

At the windy Baltic airport, the pontiff was surrounded by signs of "an enormous historical process" in which he said he rejoiced.

On a ceremonial carpet -- the only touch of red at the scene -- stood former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, once a "non-person" with whom the pope had to meet in semisecret, now the president of the Polish Republic and the leader of the welcoming committee.

Bishops of a once persecuted church were ranged shoulder-to-shoulder with state authorities over whom they exercise an increasingly pervasive power.

Broad smiles reflected the relaxed mood of an occasion that had been organized, said Bishop Aloysius Orszulik, "without midnight conversations or upsetting telephone calls from the Politburo."

And state authorities, who once welcomed the pope warily as an unavoidable antagonist, this time hailed him heartily as a savior.

"Without your work and prayer . . . there would be no 'Solidarity,' " Mr. Walesa told the pontiff. "There would have been no Polish August and no victory of freedom."

Pope John Paul's first pilgrimage here, in 1979, is largely credited with inspiring the formation of the Solidarity labor movement in August 1980. It was Solidarity's nine-year struggle that finally ousted the communist regime in Poland and set off a chain reaction throughout Eastern Europe.

In the Pope's view, though, the blessings of freedom are not unmixed. For the old, unified "church of silence," which stood up to communism but at least overtly acquiesced to Rome, is now riven by dissent.

Poles, over 90 percent of whom profess Roman Catholicism, particularly reject the church's conservative sexual morality, of which Pope John Paul II is the most visible purveyor. A survey published last week by the state-run television network's OBOP polling organization showed 81 percent of respondents opposing church teachings on contraception, 71 percent on abortion, 63 percent on divorce and 61 percent on extramarital sex.

The pope, who has publicly supported a new Polish bill meting out jail terms for abortion, is expected to address the issue while here.

The withdrawal of some contraceptives from the market and the tightening of divorce regulations has prompted some concern that the church is codifying its own morality into state law and building an ideological monopoly. Significantly, 74 percent of those polled last week considered the church's political role too great, and 57 percent said that it should have no political role at all.

But former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, on the first day of his fourth pilgrimage to Poland, made clear his aim of teaching his countrymen the duties of Catholic citizenship. "In the center of the transformation of socio-political and socio-economic systems," he said on arrival, "is every human being, a subject co-determining the common good for the sake of the objective laws of community life."

Mr. Walesa greeted John Paul as the "pope of the duties of the Christian and the citizen."

"We will not relinquish those values that constitute our national identity," the president told Pope John Paul, "our affection for the Christian faith, for the Catholic tradition." Mr. Walesa said that the church was "once more fulfilling its educational role in public life."

Many Poles still subscribe to these tenets. But now that unity against a common enemy no longer binds them, some are contesting what amounts to a state religion.

For the first time in four pilgrimages, Polish reporters last week persistently probed the costs of the visit to Poland's battered economy. Poles' particular ire focused on the government's purchase of two U.S.-made Bell helicopters, each luxuriously fitted out for the pope, which replaced cheaper Polish models.

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