May 26, 2006

Pope gets rapturous welcome at Polish shrine

By Philip Pullella and Natalia Reiter

CZESTOCHOWA, Poland (Reuters) - Pope Benedict received a
rapturous welcome on Friday when he visited Poland's holiest
shrine to pray where his Polish-born predecessor, John Paul,
found spiritual comfort as a boy, a priest and a pontiff.

The 79-year-old German pope left the capital Warsaw and
flew by helicopter south to Czestochowa, site of the shrine of
the Black Madonna, a dark icon revered by Polish Catholics.

In what was by far the warmest reception of the trip yet,
more than 300,000 people waving banners, flags and rosaries
packed a hillside to welcome Benedict to the shrine where John
Paul often went to pray when he was living as a boy in nearby
Wadowice and later as a priest, bishop and cardinal in Krakow.

Poles are still feeling the pain of the loss of John Paul,
who visited Czestochowa often when he returned to Poland as
pontiff. But they say they have great admiration for Benedict,
particularly because he was very close to John Paul.

"We came here to show that it doesn't matter if the pope is
Polish or German. We would accept any pope -- a black, a
Chinese, anyone," said Janusz Lukasik, 52, who went to the
shrine with his family.

"John Paul taught us that we should treat everyone the
same. Benedict has proven that we are special to him and we are
thankful," Lukasik said.

Inside the shrine, Benedict, knelt in prayer as the icon,
which is only shown to the public on special occasions, was
uncovered from its frame on an ornate silver altar.


Earlier on Friday in the capital Warsaw, Benedict
celebrated a mass for more than 300,000 people from the spot
where John Paul inspired his countrymen to defy communism 27
years ago and urged Poles not to let modern prosperity erode
their faith.

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

At his 1979 mass, the late Polish pontiff quoted a prayer
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 cross 25 metres (80 feet) high.

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.