Pope John Paul the Second has arrived in his homeland, Poland Friday on what many Poles fear may be his last visit to his homeland. For the pontiff, it will be a sentimental four-day journey to the area around Krakow, the city where he became a priest and later served as archbishop before assuming the papacy in 1978. More than 15,000 of his countrymen turned out to welcome the 82-year-old pope as he landed in Krakow, some 200 kilometers south of the country's capital of Warsaw.
Four-million people, more than one tenth of fervently Roman Catholic Poland's population, have been converging on Krakow to see the man they revere as their nation's moral and spiritual leader.
This is his ninth trip to Poland as leader of the Catholic Church. But many Poles are afraid it could be his last. John Paul is suffering from Parkinson's disease, severe arthritis, and a speech impediment.
According to a public opinion poll, 86 percent of Poland's people consider a papal visit an important personal event. The pope's trips to Poland have always been filled with historical import, emotional content, and foreboding. This one is no exception.
John Paul is Poland's most famous living native son. Poles look to him for inspiration and guidance, remembering the role he played in the 1980s, when he confronted Soviet domination, injected his fellow citizens with confidence during the dark days of martial law, and rejoiced with them when the Berlin Wall came down.
Lech Walesa, the former leader of the independent trade union Solidarity, and, later president of Poland, says that the pope accelerated the resistance to communist rule but made sure it was peaceful.
"We, without him, would have started much later, with a lot of blood," he said.
But Jacek Wozniakowski, a retired university professor who worked with the pope when he was still archbishop of Krakow, says John Paul was less interested in a confrontation with the regime than in inspiring Poles to yearn for spiritual and personal freedom.
"It wasn't at all a strategy of struggle with communism. The strategy concerned the spiritual development of his flock," he explained.
Even Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist general who imposed martial law in 1981 in a vain attempt to crush Solidarity, calls John Paul "the most illustrious Pole of the 20th Century." He told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera this week that the pope was a wise adversary, worthy of respect.
Poles are again looking to the pontiff to guide them through what continues to be a difficult economic transition from communism to a free-market system. Many people are being left behind as the country undertakes harsh reforms to qualify for membership in the European Union.
Although the pope has always felt Poland's heart and soul lie with the West, he knows capitalism has its problems and is expected to speak out in defense of people left out of his country's growing prosperity. Pope John Paul is also worried that Poland is becoming more secular and that it has distanced itself from the Christian values he believes provided the moral ammunition to topple communism.