Pope Benedict XVI today celebrated Mass for an estimated 270,000 people in a rain-drenched Warsaw square where his predecessor, John Paul II, inspired Poland’s Solidarity movement against communist rule in a historic 1979 visit.
People lined the street to wave and cheer as Benedict’s popemobile passed, and church bells pealed. An aide held an umbrella as Benedict ascended a high Mass platform topped by a 25-metre metal cross.
Spectators stood resolutely in ponchos and under umbrellas, filling vast Pilsudski Square before the 9.30am start (8.30am Irish time) , determined to see Benedict pay tribute to his friend and mentor – a main theme of his trip to Poland.
Aneta Owczarek, 18, dripping wet without a raincoat, said she wouldn’t consider going inside.
“No way,” she said. “This is one of the most important events that could ever happen in Poland and we don’t know if we’ll ever see the Pope here again.”
Boy Scouts distributed tarpaulins for rain cover, and people climbed on fences and sang along with the choir.
The choice of site for the Mass recalled John Paul II’s bold call to “renew the face of this land” at the square, then called Victory Square, during his triumphant first visit to his native land after being elected Pope.
His appearance challenged the atheist communist authorities and is credited by Solidarity founder Lech Walesa with energising the emerging trade union resistance to Soviet-backed communist rule, which collapsed in 1989-90.
The crowd was less than in 1979, when some 300,000 people jammed the square, with some 750,000 in the surrounding streets. Police spokesman Pawel Biedziak provided today’s crowd estimate.
White and yellow Vatican flags festooned lampposts, and Benedict’s picture stood in apartment windows; one window on Mazowiecka Street had pictures of both Benedict and John Paul.
“Today, the feeling is more spontaneous – in 1979, we still were under a different system, we were under a regime and people came because they wanted this meeting with the pope to bring fruit, and it did,” said Barbara Kamela, 60, a retired bookkeeper who attended the 1979 Mass.
“John Paul II was dearer to us, because he was our brother,” she said. “This pope is visibly trying to be close to us, we have a strong impression from him and I came to this Mass to be near him.”
The Mass is the highlight of the second day of a four-day trip that will include Benedict’s visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, a visit heavy with significance for Catholic-Jewish relations, a favourite cause of both Benedict and John Paul.