May 25, 2006

Warm but sparse welcome for the Pope in Poland

By Philip Pullella and Natalia Reiter

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland gave German-born Pope Benedict a
warm but sparse reception on Thursday as he began a visit to
honor his predecessor John Paul and help banish lingering
ghosts of the Nazi occupation.

The new conservative government turned out in force to
welcome him at the airport and thousands of waiting Poles burst
into cheers and applause when Benedict, 79, started addressing
them in clear, slightly accented Polish.

There were noticeably fewer people lining the streets into
Warsaw than the hundreds of thousands who used to turn out for
John Paul's triumphal visits to his homeland. Police estimated
about 70,000 came out to see him pass in his white popemobile.

In deference to Polish and Jewish sensitivities, Benedict
will avoid speaking German for most of the four-day trip,
except when he prays at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz on

"I have come to follow in the footsteps of his life, from
his boyhood until his departure for the memorable conclave of
1978," Benedict said of John Paul in his greeting in Polish.

Continuing in Italian, the language of the Vatican, he said
the trip was "no mere sentimental journey...but rather a
journey of faith, a part of the mission entrusted to me by the

His trip will take him to cities and shrines dear to John
Paul and end in southern Poland at Auschwitz, where 1.5 million
people, many of them Jews, were killed during World War Two.


Reflecting the sensitivity about his background, he
stressed before leaving Rome that he would go to Auschwitz
primarily as a Catholic honoring the victims.

Benedict, who was involuntarily enrolled in the Hitler
Youth during the war and briefly served in an anti-aircraft
unit, will also meet survivors and Jewish leaders at Auschwitz.

"Together we pray the wounds of the past century will heal,
thanks to the remedy that God in his goodness has prescribed
for us by calling us to forgive one another," he said.

Welcoming Benedict, President Lech Kaczynski cited his long
years of work alongside John Paul as "the greatest model of
cooperation between a German and a Pole."

The Pope, more reserved than his charismatic predecessor,
smiled and waved as the popemobile glided through Warsaw's
streets. At one point, he stopped to take a child in his arms
and bless him.

He bowed his head in respect as the motorcade slowed while
passing a memorial to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a
desperate attempt by Jews to resist deportation to death camps.

Lucjan Balewski, 77, who came from Poznan to see the Pope,
said he admired Benedict as a theologian but did not have the
same feeling for him as for John Paul, who died on April 2,
2005, after 26 years at the Vatican.

"The last Pope was ours, this one, too," he said. "But this
time it is our choice to make him ours."

A street vendor selling Vatican and Polish flags also
noticed the difference. "There are fewer people on the street
today then when John Paul visited, so business is not that
good," said Hubert Grzywacz, 25.


Addressing clergymen at Saint John's Cathedral in central
Warsaw, Benedict said priests should stay out of politics -- a
touchy topic because the Catholic radio station Radio Maryja
(Mary) openly supports the ruling eurosceptic conservatives.

The militantly traditionalist station has split the Polish
clergy and prompted a harsh warning from the Vatican.

"The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics,
construction or politics," Benedict said. "He is expected to be
an expert in the spiritual life."

Benedict's outdoor masses in Warsaw on Friday and Krakow on
Sunday and stops at popular shrines are certain to be compared
with similar appearances by John Paul, whose visits challenged
the pre-1989 communist rulers and inspired millions of Poles.