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Poles Pray and Cry For Pope

Millions of people in Pope John Paul II's native Poland have been praying for the pontiff, who they considered to be both a spiritual father and a source of inspiration during their struggle against Communism. Poles were seen streaming into churches throughout the mainly Catholic nation.

As news emerged of his fading health, Poland's state run television began airing music with pictures of Pope John Paul II, who was born in 1920 as Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, a southern Polish town.

People watched their television sets and listened to radios across the country as they were praying for the pontiff. Many people in Poland believe their native Pope has played an important role in the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

The 84-year old Pope is highly revered in Poland, even by those who do not share what critics regard as his conservative views on family issues.

His first return visit to the then communist Poland as Pope in 1979 drew millions of people onto the streets. His passionate sermons inspired them to step up their challenge to the pro-Soviet authorities.

In a statement Friday, former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who was Poland's first non-communist president in 1990, said "the Pope's death would be a blow to Poland and the world."

As news emerged of his worsening health, people in Poland not only gathered in front of television sets, but also streamed into churches. Many of them gathered in churches in the capital Warsaw and the southern city of Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla was Cardinal before becoming Pope in 1978.

The english-language Polish radio (Radio Polonia) said hundreds of faithful catholics participated in an all-night vigil in the Tatra mountains, where the Pope used to preach. It reports on some people's reaction to the news:

Woman 1: "I think, I hope not, but I think these are the last days of the pope. It is awful. I don't know how to say it in words"
Woman 2: "It is very sad situation for me, and I hope the Pope will feel better in the next few days."
Man 3: "We are concerned about his health, and his life. No one knows what can happen in coming days. This man means a lot for every Pole. This man changed a lot in our history and society. And he is the greatest person perhaps in the history."

That reflects a recent poll on the Pope's role in the life of people in Poland. It found Poles consider the Pope the most important personality of the last century and his election to the papacy in 1978 as more important than even the fall of communism.

The pilgrims gathered well into the night Friday after the Papal Nuncio in Warsaw, Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, urged Polish believers to pray for the Pope.

Speaking through an interpreter on Polish radio, Archbishop Kowalczyk said it was time for the people in Poland to show they care for him with prayers. "We should now be filled above all with charity and be in solidarity with the Holy Father. At the time when we can also see his great suffering as a testimony of faith."

Analysts say the Pope was a moral authority for Polish Catholics, especially during the 15 years of often harsh reforms and painful transformation from communism into a Western democracy.

During his nine trips to his native country, he often urged Poles never to forget their spiritual roots, and urged people to not forget to care for their soul and those in need.