Pope celebrates mass for 270,000

Pope Benedict XVI today celebrated Mass for an estimated 270,000 people in a rain-soaked Warsaw square where his predecessor, John Paul II, inspired Poland’s Solidarity movement against communist rule in a historic 1979 visit.

Pope Benedict XVI today celebrated Mass for an estimated 270,000 people in a rain-soaked Warsaw square where his predecessor, John Paul II, inspired Poland’s Solidarity movement against communist rule in a historic 1979 visit.

In his sermon, Benedict challenged moral relativism, or the view that there are no absolute values, and defended the church’s unchanging traditional beliefs.

In remarks read in Polish by an aide, Benedict warned the faithful against those “seeking to falsify the Word of Christ and to remove from the Gospel those truths which in their view are too uncomfortable for modern man.”

“They try to give the impression that everything is relative: even the truths of faith would depend on the historical situation and human evaluation,” he said, in remarks that echoed his homily at John Paul II’s funeral last year. “Yet the church cannot silence the spirit of truth.”

The choice of site – called Victory Square in 1979 and today Pilsudski Square - hearkened back to John Paul II’s challenge to “renew the face of the Earth, of this land” during his triumphant first trip to his native land after being elected pope.

That visit challenged the atheist communist authorities and is credited by Solidarity founder Lech Walesa with inspiring trade union resistance to Soviet-backed communist rule, which collapsed in 1989-90.

Spectators stood resolutely Friday in ponchos and under umbrellas, filling the vast square before a 25-metre metal cross on an elevated platform.

Aneta Owczarek, 18, left dripping wet without a raincoat, did not consider going indoors.

“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.”

Warsaw authorities said doctors on site treated about 100 people during the Mass, and 19 people were taken to hospital with cold or circulation difficulties, but there were no serious injuries.

As the Mass finished, the sun broke through the clouds and spectators dropped their umbrellas in favour of Polish and Vatican flags, along with signs and banners they waved as the pope walked through and blessed the crowd.

Textile merchant Zbigniew Kowalski, 48, attended the Mass and said he was impressed by the pope’s “warmth and openness” and his stress that “love is the most important thing between people.”

However, Warsaw retiree Miroslawa Rogozinska said she missed the personal connection that John Paul had with ordinary Poles.

“John Paul II knew our history, he knew our lives, in his words there was always some advice, some words of hopes for the future. This Mass was very religious, what I heard in the homily was something I could hear in any church,” said the 70-year-old. “It’s too early to feel that this is our pope.”

The crowd was smaller than in 1979, when some 300,000 people jammed the square and some 750,000 stood in the surrounding streets. Police spokesman Pawel Biedziak provided the estimate of today’s crowd, with a packed square but virtually abandoned side streets.

Benedict urged today’s Poland – now a member of the European Union – to remain a strong Catholic voice in an increasingly secular Europe. “Stand firm in your faith, hand it down to your children,” he said in his homily.

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 trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, a visit heavy with significance for Catholic-Jewish relations, a favourite cause of both Benedict and John Paul.

Benedict left Warsaw by helicopter for Jasna Gora, a 14th century monastery that houses the icon of the Black Madonna and is Poland’s holiest shrine. More than 100,000 were on hand awaiting his arrival at the site overlooking Czestochowa.

In Krakow, where Benedict was to arrive tonight, organisers said more than 1 million visitors were expected.

“Krakow is still preparing for the arrival,” said Mayor Jacek Majchrowski, adding that the pontiff, who has visited the city before, would find familiar faces eager to greet him, and meet new ones, too.

“There will be even more memories,” he said.

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