'Renew the face of this land'

Monday, October 13, 2003

KRAKOW, Poland -- Troubled by television pictures of a stooped and frail Pope John Paul II, Poles celebrated the 25th anniversary of their native son's papacy Sunday with prayers for his health and memories of his inspiration for their overthrow of communism.

Throughout this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, church leaders, former school chums and well-wishers cheered the former Karol Wojtyla, the cardinal from the southern city of Krakow whose Oct. 16, 1978, election as pope strengthened an oppressed nation.

Churches and central squares were festooned with yellow papal banners as Poles expressed their affection for John Paul in Masses, concerts and national television specials.

The pope briefly addressed his countrymen in a live television feed from the Vatican. The smiling 83-year-old pontiff, his hands trembling as he sat in an armchair, expressed gratitude for his long tenure.

"God allowed me to see the 25th year of the pontificate," he said in Polish. "Thanks to God, thanks to the people."

That set off cheers from the thousands gathered to watch him on a huge screen in Krakow's Market Square.

"It's such a surprise, he did it just for us," said teary-eyed hairdresser Krystyna Pawlak, 48. "You can really feel we are one nation, he and us."

Fall of communism

The pope planned a satellite address later Sunday, four days before his actual anniversary.

The anniversary gave Poles a chance to reflect on a turbulent quarter-century, especially the peaceful collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 that owed much to the pope's moral authority.

In a special anniversary Mass, Cardinal Jozef Glemp praised the pope for "undoubtedly" inspiring the fall of communism with remarks made during John Paul's first papal visit to his native land in 1979, a year before the Solidarity movement took shape.

"We remember the words of the pope from the first pilgrimage (to Poland) in 1979 when he said: 'Let the spirit come down and renew the face of this land,"' Glemp told worshippers in the small, baroque St. Mary's church in Warsaw.

Glemp also lashed out at the media for its "superficial" portrayal of the pope.

"Popular media focus their interest on the illness and difficulties of speech of the Holy Father, as if they were waiting only to see when he is going to close his eyes," he said.

Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity worker movement that ultimately toppled communism, credited John Paul with giving Poles the courage to rise up.

"The pope started this chain of events that led to the end of communism," Walesa said. "Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism.

"He simply said: Don't be afraid, change the image of this land."

At the Vatican, the pope referred to homeland celebrations during his regular weekly address to the faithful from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square.

"With gratitude I entrust to the Holy Mother the organizers and participants of various religious and cultural events, prepared for this occasion," he said in Polish.

As the Thursday anniversary of his election neared, John Paul also recalled his first Sunday appearance at St. Peter's as pope, when he told young Roman Catholics they were the future of the church, and his hope.

"I must recognize that the response of the young has been truly encouraging," he said in a hushed voice, pausing several times to catch his breath. "Today, I want to thank them for having always been close to me during these years, and I want them to know that I continue to count on them."

He was interrupted several times by applause -- including once after sneezing.

The prayers and greeting were broadcast on Polish television, and old friends anguished at the sight of the pope's frailty, remembering the youth they took high school exams with 60 years ago.

"It is such a day when memories come back," said Stanislaw Jura, 84, a former schoolmate now living in Krakow. "I remember him as a strong, healthy man. And when I see him now, my heart fills with sorrow."

Many of his school and university friends gathered in Krakow, where John Paul was ordained and spent 40 years before becoming pope, to celebrate and watch the pope speak.

"I wish him health. His voice is sometimes weak, sometimes strong," said Karol Hagenhuber, 84, one of the five surviving high-school classmates of the pope. "You never know what to expect. Even he doesn't know."

Associated Press reporters Andrzej Stylinski in Warsaw, Poland, and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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