Pontiff retraces his own history

Pope says Mass near plant where he worked in youth

August 18, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KRAKOW, Poland - Just down the hillside from the shrine in which Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass yesterday morning was the spot where he once worked in the quarry of a chemical factory, back when this country was under brutal Nazi occupation.

A few hundred feet from the shrine's altar was the tiny church where he often prayed, finding sanctuary and strength as a life that had been filled with theater and poetry gave way for a painful time to the tedium of manual labor.

"Many of my personal memories are connected with this place," the pope said at the end of the Mass, adding that he remembered well the path took to that quarry job. "Every day, I walked this road coming to work for different shifts in wooden shoes that one used to wear those days."

It was a fleeting recollection, stinting on the hardship and bereft of the drama of that chapter in his extraordinary personal journey. But with those words, Pope John Paul made clear that his visit to Krakow - and his official dedication of a shrine to the memory of a Polish nun who claimed mystical experiences of Jesus Christ - was anything but a typical papal pilgrimage.

It was an opportunity to retrace the steps of his youth and of his development during the four decades he spent in this southern city into a towering leader of the Roman Catholic Church and its first Slavic pope.

It was also a chance to reconnect with a country whose history shaped him and whose history he, in turn, helped shape.

Some of what he experienced as a young man in Krakow seemed to inform the remarks he made during the Mass yesterday; he dwelt on the persistence of violent conflict and deprivation in the world.

"In every continent, from the depth of human suffering, a cry for mercy seems to rise up," the pope said from the altar of the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, a boat-shaped basilica of marble, wood and glass with one tower that measures precisely 77 meters, because the pope was 77 years old when he last set foot on the shrine's location five years ago.

"Where hatred and thirst for revenge dominate, where war brings suffering and death to the innocent, there the grace of mercy is needed in order to settle human minds and hearts and to bring about peace," the ailing 82-year-old pope said.

The pope has Parkinson's disease, which sometimes affects his speech. At the dedication, his voice veered from firm to quavering; his words came out alternately clear and fuzzy. This is his ninth trip home to Poland since he became pope in 1978, and Poles were seeing a man physically diminished by the passage of all those years and by his Parkinson's struggle.

But it did not dilute their joy over his homecoming.

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