Pope calls for Solidarity spirit to revive homeland to unite Poland

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THREE-HUNDRED thousand people attended an open air mass celebrated by the Pope yesterday in the northern Polish city of Pelplin. On the second day of a 13-day visit the ailing 79-year-old Pontiff urged Poles not to abandon their faith. Yesterday's huge turnout followed a rapturous reception from the people of Gdansk on Saturday.

Elderly farmers in their best Sunday suits, teenagers in flapping jeans, black-habited nuns, peasant women with lined faces clutching crosses, all Poland's generations united in worship. Police helicopters buzzed overhead and ships swayed offshore in the turquoise expanse of sea as a moving air of peace and reverence descended over this stretch of Baltic coast.

The Gdansk visit confirmed his position as the country's most popular and influential leader, and he issued a clarion call for moral and spiritual values to increase alongside material growth.

As the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union, the Baltic port of Gdansk is a deeply symbolic city for Poland, if not all of former Communist eastern Europe. It was Solidarity, aided by the support its leaders received from Pope John Paul, that brought down the Communist regime, and ultimately helped topple the Soviet Union itself.

"This cry of conscience 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," the Pope said. "It was precisely in Gdansk that a new Poland was born, which gives us so much and of which we are so proud."

For a nation as divided as post-Communist Poland, Pope John Paul's travels across the land of his birthplace this week will offer an opportunity for spiritual, if not political, peace. Now afflicted by tremors, the ageing pontiff has a gruelling schedule ahead of him as he embarks on his longest tour of Poland since he left as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to be elected Pope in 1978. He will visit 20 cities in 13 days, traversing the country by aeroplane and the bullet-proof "Popemobile". A glimpse of spirituality rather than materialism was on display when 700,000 worshippers attended an open-air mass on Saturday evening in the coastal resort of Sopot on the Baltic coast, adjacent to Gdansk.

The Catholic Church is frequently at odds with Poland's younger generation over the Pope's hard-line views on abortion, contraception and divorce, but the pontiff had an easy rapport with his youthful audience that any politician would envy, as he laughed and cracked jokes in the summer sun.

But healing Poland's social wounds will be a lengthy task. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the Communist dictatorship whose demise the Pope did so much to bring about.

For many in Poland, as for their neighbours in the former Soviet bloc, freedom has come at a high price. Many, especially the elderly, are bitter that capitalism and the free market have failed to provide a comfortable standard of living, while crime and poverty, almost unknown under Communism, have soared as the country's array of political parties engage in what seems to be endless bickering. Poland's Roman Catholic bishops have appealed for national unity and a pause in political and social quarrels during the Papal visit.

The hierarchy of the Polish Catholic church, to which 95 per cent of the nation's 39 million people at least nominally belong, has warned against trivialising the religious meaning of the trip by dragging the Pope into domestic disputes. "I hope that during the Pope's visit a bit of an angel will enter each of us and we will reach out our hands to one another," Bishop Jan Chrapek, the visit organiser, told state radio. The Polish church has criticised protests staged by farmers, miners and doctors this year to demand protection from economic change, and is unhappy that a long-running pay protest by nurses in Warsaw has not been suspended for the Pope's trip.

"The bishops appeal to the government to start solving these dramatic problems and not to avoid burning social issues," Bishop Chrapek said.

But barely three days into the trip, the Pope's visit has already been dogged by controversy. Many Poles are disappointed at the way businesses are cashing in on the Papal visit, and the Church's willingness to let corporate sponsors use the occasion to publicise their companies. And the ever-delicate issue of Jewish-Catholic relations was highlighted when on Saturday the Pope met a far-right priest who served a one-year preaching ban for making anti-Semitic remarks. Father Henryk Jankowski, former chaplain to ex-Polish President Lech Walesa, said he briefly met the Pope when he opened an ecumenical centre in Gdansk.

Fr Jankowski was barred from the pulpit of his church in 1997 after he said Jews should have no place in Poland's government. Last year he told voters in local elections to check if candidates were Jews or Russians before voting.