Pope Benedict XVI, making sentimental stops in his predecessor’s homeland, brought joy to Poles by announcing that he hopes John Paul II will be made a saint “in the near future".
But the presence of a boyhood friend of the late pontiff touched another memory – the painful history of Poland’s Jews.
Benedict’s visit yesterday to John Paul’s birthplace Wadowice, once home to a flourishing Jewish community, came a day before the German pope visits the Auschwitz death camp. Benedict has acknowledged he was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a teenager.
The stop to the infamous death camp was not originally planned, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said yesterday.
“But the pope said ’I want to go, I have to go,”’ Navarro-Valls said.
Late yesterday, Benedict addressed more than 600,000 pilgrims – many of them young people – on the spacious, grassy Blonia Common where he will lead Mass Sunday and urged them not be discouraged by creeping secularism.
“Often, Jesus is ignored, he is mocked and he is declared a king of the past who is not for today and certainly not for tomorrow,” Benedict said. “A strong faith must endure tests. A living faith must always grow.”
The vast crowd swayed and sang, holding candles in the twilight.
“Stay with us! Stay with us!” they chanted to Benedict, who blessed them with the sign of the cross.
Earlier, Benedict, referring to John Paul as “my great predecessor,” toured the house where John Paul lived as a child and the church where he served as an altar boy.
In the packed square outside the Immaculate Conception Basilica sat Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who has lived in Rome for decades and is one of the last of John Paul’s old cronies still living.
“Pope Benedict knows what he’s doing, and John Paul II also knew what he was doing when he named Cardinal Ratzinger, today’s Benedict,” Kluger told The Associated Press. “However, the fact that Benedict is German has no meaning here. His nationality plays no role.”
During a 1999 visit, John Paul reminisced about his Jewish landlord – the family recently sold the house to a Polish businessman – and lamented that so many Jews had been killed during the Nazi occupation, taken to the Auschwitz camp about 20 miles from Wadowice.
“It’s good that the pope will go there,” Kluger said. ”The visit to Auschwitz is a question of responsibility.”
Nearly 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. It will be Benedict’s third visit to the death camp, including accompanying John Paul in 1979, but his first as pope.
Benedict, who deserted from the German army in the waning days of World War II, will say a prayer in German – his only public use of his native tongue during his Polish pilgrimage.
While John Paul and Benedict have played key roles in improving Roman Catholic-Jewish relations, some in Poland’s small Jewish community expressed disappointment that Benedict did not stop as he drove in from Warsaw’s airport to bless 30 elderly Catholic Poles honoured by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for saving Jewish lives.
The group had gathered at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument, together with the Israeli ambassador. The pope clasped his hands and nodded to the group, but the car kept moving.
“He should at least have gotten out of his popemobile and taken those few steps,” said Anna Kornecka, who saved two Jews in a ghetto in Vilnius, which was then part of Poland.
Jerzy Kozminski, honoured for saving 26 Jews, said that ”as a German and pope, Benedict could have done something. At Auschwitz he will have to make some gesture because the whole world will be watching.”
Benedict’s encouraging remark on sainthood – an addition to his prepared text - generated a roar of applause from the 15,000 people gathered at a shrine outside Krakow.
Honouring John Paul is a major theme of Benedict’s four-day trip to Poland, where the cause of John Paul’s sainthood is extremely popular. Some were even hoping Benedict might make the official announcement during the trip.
Benedict, standing next to John Paul’s former secretary, Krakow’s Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, outdoors at the Kalwaria Zebrzydowska shrine, said: “Your Cardinal Stanislaw expresses the hope, as do I, that in the near future we will be able to enjoy the beatification and canonisation of John Paul II.”
A large banner reading “Wadowice Prays For Sainthood Immediately, John Paul II the Great” in Italian and Polish hung in the packed square in front of the church where John Paul was baptised, and Benedict said he shared their cause.
“I wished to stop precisely here, in the place where his faith began and matured, to pray together with all of you that he may soon be elevated to the glory of the altars,” Benedict told about 30,000 people in the town square.
After praying in the ornate church, Benedict walked down a cobblestone street to the Koscielna Street house where John Paul spent his boyhood and that is now a museum devoted to John Paul. There he was greeted by the nuns who run the museum, and he walked through the rooms where photographs document the boyhood of future pope Karol Wojtyla.
Shortly after becoming pope, Benedict waived the five-year waiting period after a person’s death to begin a case for possible sainthood for John Paul. Miracles are needed for both beatification and canonisation, and the case of a French nun whose inexplicable recovery from Parkinson’s disease is being investigated by church officials as a possible miracle.
“The Holy Father is doing everything to make John Paul II a saint and we owe him deep gratitude for that,” said Halina Bucka, 48, a Wadowice kindergarten teacher.