May 26, 2006

Keep the faith burning, Pope tells Poles

By Philip Pullella and Natalia Reiter

WARSAW (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, speaking from the spot in
Poland where his predecessor John Paul first inspired his
countrymen to defy communism 27 years ago, urged Poles on
Friday not to let modern prosperity erode their faith.

The 79-year-old German Pope presided at an open air mass
for more than 300,000 people -- less than the 1 million
expected -- in a rainy Warsaw square as he began the second day
of a trip in the footsteps of John Paul.

As the crowd huddled under umbrellas, Benedict recalled
that it was there in Pilsudski Square that John Paul read a
fiery speech that would later go down in Polish history as a
spark that ushered in a bloodless revolution.

At his 1979 mass, the late Polish pontiff quoted a psalm
asking the Holy Spirit "to renew the face of the earth ..." and
then improvised, adding "the face of this land."

Poles saw it as a battle cry to fight oppression. Backed by
John Paul, the Solidarity trade union was born the following
year. After a decade of social tensions that included two years
of martial law, Poland in 1989 shook off communism, beginning a
domino effect that spread to the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Benedict, who succeeded John Paul in April, 2005, spoke
from the base of a massive aluminum cross 25 meters (80 feet)

Thrilling his listeners by reading some of his sermon in
Polish, he reminded them of the massive significance of the
five additional words uttered by John Paul in 1979 and said:

"How can we not thank God today for all that was
accomplished in your native land and in the whole world during
the Pontificate of John Paul II?"

"Before our eyes, changes occurred in entire political,
economic and social systems. People in various countries
regained their freedom and their sense of dignity," he said,
delivering his homily in Italian and Polish.


Today Poland is a thriving democracy, a member of the
European Union and NATO. But Benedict has expressed concern
that the towering faith that inspired Poles in difficult times
was weakening under the onslaught of secularism and

"I ask you now, cultivate this rich heritage of faith
transmitted to you by earlier generations ... stand firm in
your faith, hand it down to your children, bear witness to the
grace which you have experienced so abundantly through the Holy
Spirit in the course of your history," he said in his homily.

Deferring to sensitivities over the Nazi occupation of
Poland in World War Two, when German forces killed vast numbers
of Poles and Jews, Benedict will avoid speaking his native
language for nearly all of the trip.

"Of course there is a big difference to me," said Eugenia,
a 75-year-old pensioner waiting in the rain-drenched crowd.

"John Paul was my countryman so it was natural. He
understood what I felt. He understood my everyday problems. The
pain after his death is still deep and will stay in my heart
forever but Benedict is also my Pope now," she said.

After the mass, Benedict was flying to southern Poland,
where John Paul served as a priest, bishop and cardinal until
he was elected pope in 1978.

The most poignant stop comes on Sunday when Benedict visits
the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, where 1.5 million people,
many of them Jews, were killed during World War Two.

It is the only place where Benedict, who was involuntarily
enrolled in the Hitler Youth when he was a boy, is expected to
speak German in public.