Pope begins pilgrimage in footsteps of John Paul II to Poland


WARSAW (AFP) - Bells pealed as he shook hands warmly with state and church officials including Polish President Lech Kaczynski, Cardinal Primate Jozef Glemp and Krakow Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.

"This is not just a sentimental journey, but a journey of faith," he added in his opening remarks. "I am happy to be here, among you, on the soil of the Polish republic. I so wanted to visit the country of my beloved predecessor, the servant of God John Paul II, and to be here, among his compatriots," Benedict said after arriving at Warsaw`s Okecie airport. Thousands of Poles lined the streets of Warsaw to welcome Benedict, some shouting "Long Live the Pope", others holding aloft the yellow and white flag of the Vatican, letting it flutter in the brisk spring breeze. But the crowds were far thinner and the rapturous than those given to Poland`s own pope, John Paul II, on his nine pilgrimages to his homeland. After the welcoming ceremony at the airport, as he was taken in a motorcade through Warsaw to St John`s Cathedral in the city centre, the pope drove past the monument to the heroes and victims of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, when a small group of Jews tried to fight off Poland`s World War II Nazi occupiers. Grand Rabbi Michael Schudrich had told AFP that Poland`s Jewish community had asked the Vatican to "include on the pope`s programme in Warsaw Thursday the benediction of 41 Righteous -- Polish Catholics who saved Jews in the war." Benedict made a sign of blessing as his motorcade drove past the imposing monument, but neither slowed nor stopped to pay a more intimate tribute to the Jews who were terrorised in wartime Warsaw. "It`s a pity that he passed through so briefly," said Zofia Sienienska, 80, one of the Poles awarded the Righteous Among the Nations honour by Israel`s Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs` and Heroes` Remembrance Authority, to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. "I am a little disappointed. It was very quick. He made a gesture -- I hope it was a benediction," Sienienska said. The pope`s motorcade also passed in front of a monument to Poles deported and killed in the former Soviet Union and one to the 1944 Warsaw insurrection against the German occupiers. During his visit, which Poles hope will help foster "the reconciliation of peoples," 79-year-old German-born Benedict will come face-to-face with the dark shadow of Germany`s past and the terror it wrought during World War II. Like most German boys, Benedict was enrolled into the Hitler Youth, but he took no part in fighting and later deserted the army. Warsaw was almost entirely destroyed in the closing phases of the war, and the country`s Jewish population of around 3.5 million obliterated. When Benedict arrived at St. John`s Cathedral in the centre of Warsaw on Thursday, he solemnly proclaimed that "every stone" of the edifice, which was rebuilt from rubble after the war, "recalls the painful history" of Poland. "What trials you endured," he lamented. On Friday, Benedict XVI will lead a huge open-air mass in Warsaw`s central Pilsudski Square, which is expected to draw around one million faithful. Afterwards, he will head south, visiting key sites in the life and papacy of John Paul. His four-day pilgrimage culminates Sunday at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. "I hope to meet there survivors, the victims of Nazi terror, from the many nations which suffered this tragic oppression," Benedict has said.

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