Pope Benedict visits land of John Paul

May 26, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON | TRACY WILKINSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WARSAW, POLAND -- Pope Benedict XVI began a four-day pilgrimage to the Polish homeland of his predecessor yesterday, honoring the legacy of the late Pope John Paul II while praising this overwhelmingly Catholic country as a model of faith.

Thousands of Poles, curious to see a pope who wasn't Polish, lined many miles of roadway along the German-born Benedict's route into Warsaw. They cheered his motorcade and waved banners with his picture and the slogan of the visit: "Stand firm in your faith."

"I have come to follow in the footsteps of [John Paul's] life, from his boyhood until his departure for the memorable conclave of 1978" that elected him pope, Benedict said during a formal welcoming ceremony at Warsaw's Frederic Chopin Airport.

"This is no mere sentimental journey," he added, "but rather a journey of faith."

The crowds were tiny compared with what native son John Paul drew in his eight visits home. But for a capital city in an increasingly secular Europe, the turnout was impressive

In 13 months as pope, Benedict traveled outside of Italy once before: to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day celebrations last August. But that trip was in fulfillment of his predecessor's obligations. Poland marks the first destination chosen explicitly by Benedict.

In addition to tying his papacy to that of John Paul, Benedict is seeking to promote the heavy, traditional Catholicism that lives on in Poland, more than 15 years after the fall of communism.

Speaking at the red-brick, neo-Gothic St. John's Cathedral, his first stop in Warsaw, Benedict told his Polish audience that he wanted to "inhale ... this atmosphere of faith in which you live."

Benedict, 79, hopes to harness the religious energy that runs through Poland in contrast with other European nations that have liberalized laws concerning abortion rights, gay marriage and other social topics that the Vatican finds offensive.

An important test for Benedict was how he would be received and whether he would connect with this audience. Poles inevitably looked on this new pope with a degree of ambivalence - appreciative that he chose to visit Poland but pained by a longing for their Polish pontiff.

They also had to grapple with any misgivings they might have over a pope from a country that brutally occupied their nation and left Warsaw in ruins during World War II.

"We have learned to love Benedict," said Halina Zawadzke, 55, a retired employee with the railroad who watched Benedict's entourage pass. "Of course, when you speak of John Paul II, there is a flutter of the heart. But Benedict, too, is the father of all of us."

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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