Pope John Paul the II will travel back to his native Poland on Friday for the ninth time since he became the leader of the Catholic Church. This time, the pope will be visiting the Krakow region where he served as a priest, a bishop and then a cardinal.

The four-day journey to his homeland will be different from the other eight. This time, it will be a sentimental trip, and many fear it could be the 82-year-old pope's last visit home. Pope John Paul will be traveling only to Poland's Krakow region, where he moved when he was 18 years old.

It was in Krakow that the pope was ordained a priest after the World War II and later became a bishop and cardinal before being elected pope in 1978. He lived in the southern Polish city for 40 years before he moved to the Vatican.

Pope John Paul will see once again the places where he lived and worked as a student and later as a member of the Catholic Church's hierarchy. He will visit his family's tomb and a monastery where he once prayed with his father.

The pope will celebrate an outdoor mass on Sunday, August 18, which at least 2.5 million people are expected to attend. The last time he returned to Poland in 1999, the Pope was forced to cancel his mass in Krakow because he came down with the flu.

Polish officials say that on his way back to the airport, the pope will be taken on a helicopter ride over his hometown, Wadowice, and the Tatra Mountains where he used to go climbing.

The pope is no longer the sportsman he used to be. He is often seen to be tired and suffers from a number of ailments including Parkinson's disease. His failing health is clearly visible.

Just recently a French newspaper speculated that the pope would not return from Poland and that he might retire to a villa in the Tatra Mountains. Another newspaper, in Germany, said this would be his last trip abroad.

But the Vatican, as always, was quick to deny such reports, saying that the pope would return from Poland as scheduled. The Vatican's chief spokesman said Poland was to be the pope's last visit abroad for this year, but he did not rule out foreign visits in 2003.