Up to 2 million Poles expected to converge on Rome for pope's funeral

Masses held across nation to honor man credited with shaking Soviet hold

The World In Mourning

The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 06, 2005|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WARSAW, Poland - People from across Poland gathered at memorial Masses yesterday to celebrate the life of Pope John Paul II, the champion of their nation and their faith.

Then hundreds of thousands of Poles rushed home to pack their bags and prepare to travel to Rome.

Between 1 million and 2 million Poles are planning to converge on Rome by Friday for the pope's funeral, according to estimates by Polish television. If 2 million Poles were to make the trip, that would be nearly 5 percent of the country's population of 38 million.

The Polish national airline, LOT, increased the number of flights to Rome today from one to five. Some Poles are traveling on chartered buses, while others stood in long lines to buy tickets for the 20-hour trip by train. Young people from across country began hitchhiking there.

"The number of people going has to be closer to 2 million than 1 million," said the Rev. Robert Mikos, 35, of St. Luke's Parish in Warsaw. "There has never been a funeral like this one in the history of Poland."

"When the Holy Father was alive, not everyone wanted to go see him," Mikos said. "But this is the last chance. So now, everybody wants to go."

A busload of Mikos' parishioners are traveling south today, with hopes of arriving in Rome tomorrow afternoon. They don't expect to get anywhere near St. Peter's Square, the priest said. They simply want to be in Rome when Pope John Paul is entombed in his Vatican crypt.

Three buses are scheduled today to begin the 1 1/2 -day bus trip from Bialystok, in northeast Poland, to Rome, but there weren't nearly enough seats for all who wanted to travel. "Only a delegation will go," said a disappointed Michal Kalinin, 19, "and they chose them practically at random."

Churches across the country meanwhile celebrated Masses for the pope, born Karol Wojtyla in the town of Wadowice, about 35 miles south of Krakow. Yesterday was also the country's official national day of mourning.

Not all the memorial services were formal affairs. Two rival Krakow soccer teams' fans, who have clashed violently in the past, celebrated Mass together Monday night at the city's Cathedral of Mary and staged a noisy rally in Market Square to honor the pope.

Orthodox worshipers in Bialystok attended Mass in Roman Catholic churches as a sign of respect for the late pontiff, residents said.

In the capital, nearly 300,000 people gathered for an outdoor Mass in the former Victory Square, where a quarter-century ago Pope John Paul, on his first papal visit to his homeland, gave a speech credited with shaking the former Soviet empire.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles defied Communist authorities in 1979 to celebrate Mass with the pope. Yesterday, the square - renamed after Polish independence hero Josef Pilsudski - honored the memory of the man many Poles credit with liberating them from Soviet domination.

Red-and-white Polish flags flew at half-staff or were raised by members of the crowd alongside papal flags. Mourners unfurled banners that declared, "We Love You, Daddy," "We Are Here, Father" and "We Are Not Afraid."

The huge crowd sat in somber silence. Girl Scouts, firefighters, veterans and priests stood shoulder to shoulder for the two-hour ceremony.

Joanna Zoltek, a 43-year-old bank employee, brought her 10-year-old daughter, Natalia, to the Mass to help them deal with their grief. "I believed to the end there would be a miracle," she said. "I felt despair, and I felt totally powerless. I am only beginning to cope with the situation, with my feelings."

Edward Paluch, 70, a retired mechanical engineer, was at the square a quarter-century ago when Pope John Paul electrified the crowd by urging them to stand up for human dignity. Paluch returned yesterday. It was, he said, a different world.

In 1979, food was rationed. Secret police stood behind the windows of hotels flanking the square, taking photographs of the crowd. But the Soviet Union and the governments of its Eastern Bloc satellites began to crumble when the pope finished speaking.

"Then, there was hope and enthusiasm," Paluch said, standing at the edge of the immense crowd before the start of yesterday's Mass. "Now, our society needs hope, we need that spirit again, to use the freedom that we were given."

Konrad Obrebski, deputy chief of one of Poland's three scouting organizations, said 2,000 members of his group had come to Pilsudski Square for the Mass, in memory of the pope having supported the emergence of an independent scouting movement.

In Rome in 1996, Obrebski's 20,000-member organization had presented the pontiff with its highest honor: a badge in the shape of a black cross. Obrebski recalled the pope, who usually had his assistants accept gifts for him, taking the medal with his own hands.

"What is there to say?" Obrebski said. "The greatest Polish man in history has passed away."

Cardinal Josef Glemp, 75, led the Mass. "The Holy Father has called us to prayer at this square once again," he said.

Glemp was expected to head to Rome after the service to participate in the process of selecting a new pope.

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