Poland's entrepreneurs cash in on Pope's last trip home

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FLAGS fluttered in the warm Baltic breeze, onlookers cheered, a military band played the papal and Polish anthems and church bells rang out yesterday as Pope John Paul II stepped on to Polish soil, at the start of his longest - and possibly last - trip home.

For both the Pope and Poland, it is a deeply symbolic return to the Baltic port that was the birthplace in 1980 of the Solidarity trade union that with the Pope's support eventually helped topple the Communist regime, and ultimately bring down the Soviet Union itself.

Just as in his six previous visits, the spiritual leader of the world's Catholics spelt out a clear moral message to the many thousands who had turned out to welcome him.

"I am pleased that this pilgrimage to my homeland begins in Gdansk, a city which has a place for ever in the history of Poland, of Europe and perhaps even of the whole world," the Pope said in his first address.

The former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla moved more slowly than on his last visit two years ago, walking with the aid of a stick. But his increasing frailty did not diminish the clarity of his moral message. He said Gdansk had sent Poland and the world a clarion call for human dignity, justice and freedom.

"This cry of consciences roused from slumber rang out with such force as to make room for the yearned-for freedom, a freedom which has become and continues to be for us a great task and a challenge for today and the future," he said. "It was precisely in Gdansk that a new Poland was born, which gives us so much and of which we are so proud. I pray unceasingly that Poland's material development will increase at an equal rate with its spiritual development."

President Aleksander Kwasniewski thanked the Pope for the inspiration and guidance that helped Poland make a peaceful shift from Communism to democracy. "Without that, the historical breakthrough of the last decade would not have occurred," Mr Kwasniewski, a Communist turned Social Democrat, told the Pope.

John Paul was due to travel by bullet-proof "Popemobile" through the city's crowd-lined streets. About 500,000 worshippers were expected at the first of many outdoor masses in the nearby resort town of Sopot.

From Gdansk, the Pope will travel by helicopter to 21 locations in 16 dioceses. Many of those visits will prove lucrative business opportunities for local entrepreneurs, who have been churning out papal souvenirs.

Government funds have been diverted from health and social security budgets to pay for the trip. But some 30 corporate sponsors, including most of Poland's blue-chip companies, will contribute at least $1m (pounds 641,000).

Some fear that worship of Mammon could replace veneration of the Virgin Mary in the scramble to profit from the pontiff. The Church has offered a private audience with the Pope for chief executives and the chance to place logos on press material. Polish public television, which will supply live coverage of the visit, has quadrupled its prices for advertising slots.

Jewish leaders hope that the papal visit will offer an opportunity to re-establish dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the leaders of Poland's Jewish community. Polish police and troops from the Interior Ministry recently removed hundreds of crosses placed in a field next to the Auschwitz death camp by Catholic activists. The presence of the crosses had virtually ruptured relations between the Church and the country's tiny Jewish community.

The Pope plans to meet Jewish leaders, and will also visit the site in Warsaw from where Jews were deported to the death camps.

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