Pope returns to his native Poland

Pontiff seeks to heal economic wounds

August 17, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KRAKOW, Poland - With all of the strength he could muster and emotions that brimmed quickly to the surface, Pope John Paul II returned to his native land last night for a three-day trip that held a kind of mutual promise. He hoped to be a balm for a hurting country, and Poles hoped to be a tonic for the ailing pope.

In remarks at an airport greeting ceremony here, Pope John Paul acknowledged the hard economic times that Poland is enduring after years of brisk economic development.

"I know that many Polish families, especially the largest ones, and many unemployed and elderly people are carrying the weight of social and economic change," he said in Polish, his native tongue. "I wish to tell them that I share their burden and their fate."

The pope also told them that "a positive future cannot be built on the impoverishment of man, on injustice, on the suffering of our brothers and sisters." Those comments seemed to be a nudge to the Polish government, which has been accused of leaving too many Poles without assistance as it hurtles toward a profitable market economy that is now in a downturn.

President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who spoke just before the pope did, acknowledged the difficult times. But Kwasniewski said that Poles were strengthened by the pope's presence and that they wanted in turn - with their admiration and affection for him - to nourish him "spiritually and physically."

"May it be the Polish miracle cure for pain and fatigue," he said.

Their remarks underscored the intricate ties between Pope John Paul and Poland, which form a poignant backdrop to this trip. It is his ninth visit since he was elected in 1978 to lead the Roman Catholic Church, becoming the first Polish pope in its history.

Poles, church officials and the journalists chronicling the visit are being careful not to characterize it as a farewell tour. Too many of them did that in 1997, and again in 1999, and they have learned that the 82-year-old pope, who is struggling visibly against Parkinson's disease, has a habit of defying expectations.

After his plane touched down last night, for example, he did not use a waiting cargo lift to get to the ground. Instead, he took the stairs and moved down them faster, and with less help, than he had done in Toronto last month at the beginning of his previous foreign trip.

His remarks seemed to put to rest the rampant, unsubstantiated rumors that he had come to Poland to retire to a villa here. He said he was looking forward to his three-day stay in his homeland.

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