KRAKOW, Poland -- When Pope John Paul II returns to his homeland today he will find a religious landscape vastly changed from the one he left behind almost 17 years ago on his way to assume the papacy.
Gone is the Roman Catholic Church's primacy as the voice of the downtrodden, the promoter of freedom and the standard bearer of Polish nationalism.
Now the church is viewed as yet another contender for power, a not-so-benevolent force that sometimes thwarts the majority will. In a nation of 39 million people who are nominally 95 percent Roman Catholic, the public now votes Communist and trusts the church less than it does the police, the army or even state-run television, according to opinion surveys.
"For the Catholic Church, it has not been easy to find its place in a democratic society," said Jerzy Turowicz, editor of the Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powscechny.
By getting involved in controversial matters such as endorsing political candidates and challenging Poland's long-supported right to abortion, Mr. Turowicz said, "The church has provoked a trend of growing anti-clericalism which practically did not exist during the years of the Communist regime." The climate has become so unfavorable that a split has developed among the country's bishops, a majority of whom are said to favor ousting the Polish primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, whose predecessor Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the weekly magazine Wprost reported last week.
Cardinal Glemp, besides attracting unfavorable attention over the years for remarks perceived as anti-Semitic, has promoted an active role for the church in Polish politics. He also has sharply criticized the new-wave Communists who won control of the government in the last national elections, in late 1993.
Church officials denied last week that Cardinal Glemp has lost support, and they seemed particularly angry about the Wprost report.
The embarrassing timing only seemed to emphasize how much the church's power has diminished since Pope John Paul's first papal visit.
That was in 1979, when a totalitarian Communist regime propped up by Moscow still ruled, and the idea of free elections was still remote to everyone but dreamers.
In those days, "A priest wasn't just someone to say Mass and give a sermon," said Father Mieczyslaw Malinski, a Krakow priest and close friend of Pope John Paul's since their teens. "He [a priest] was someone who took an active part in civil insurrections."
The church then was also about the only credible vestige of Polish heritage and culture, the one surviving constant after centuries of conquests, partitions and occupations by every European power from medieval Sweden to the Austro-Hungarian empire to Nazi Germany to the former Soviet Union.
"It was the only organization that was really Polish that people could turn to for support," Father Malinski said.
Even nonbelievers were respectful and admiring of that role.
Jan Wolenski, a philosophy professor at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, and a supporter of a recently founded secular journal, Without Dogma, said: "Simply speaking, the church protected independent forms of culture and social life. It was important that the church did not divide people into believers and nonbelievers. This was very impressive to people like me."
So it was that when the pope came to the vast village commons just outside central Krakow in 1979, showing up to cheer him on became a safe way to protest against the government. And when more than 2 million gathered to make such a statement, an awakening occurred.
"People saw this tremendous force," Father Malinski said. "There was a realization that we were a mass of people and had a lot more power than we'd thought."
But when this power finally shoved out the totalitarian Communist regime in favor of democracy in 1989, the church became a little intoxicated with its power, critics say.
Political candidates soon made it a part of their campaign to be filmed praying at church, and many sought the endorsement of church officials, such as Cardinal Glemp.
Solidarity, the foundation party of Polish democracy, formed strong ties to the church. And once in power, the new government moved quickly to install religious instruction in public schools. Lawmakers began working to write a strong church role into the new constitution, and passed one of Europe's most restrictive anti-abortion laws.
In a country where more than 600,000 abortions are performed each year, it was this move as much as any that provoked controversy. The anti-church voices began to speak up, and they were heeded.
A backlash developed, and the first sign of its magnitude came when the Communists regained power at elections. They liberalized the abortion laws again, and moved quickly to erase church influence from the still-evolving constitution.
In the past year, rhetoric on both sides became shrill and intemperate at times.