- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

KRAKOW, Poland Pope John Paul II made an emotional return to his homeland yesterday, walking steadily down the steps of his plane as his countrymen slowly sang "We wish you all the best."

Assisted by aides and clutching the handrail, the ailing 82-year-old pope stopped several times as he descended to the runway, waving at thousands of pilgrims welcoming him home.

The Polish-born pontiff remained standing during the Polish and Vatican anthems. Rather than kneeling to kiss the ground, he kissed a basket of wild flowers.

"Once again I greet Poland and all my countrymen," the pope said, speaking slowly but clearly. "I do so with the very same sentiments of emotion and joy that I feel every time I return to my homeland."

The pope's ninth trip to his native Poland was both a nostalgic homecoming and an effort to demonstrate solidarity with his countrymen, many of whom are suffering economic hardships under capitalism and austerity measures to prepare Poland for European Union membership.

John Paul touched directly on the problems of unemployment and poverty in a changing Poland and stressed: "Those who work within the spirit of Catholic social ethics cannot remain indifferent" to the fate of those who don't have jobs and live in increasing poverty.

"To them and to all my fellow countrymen, I bring today a message of hope that comes from Christ's word," he said.

The medieval capital where a young Karol Wojtyla was ordained and eventually elevated to archbishop was festooned with flags, banners and posters heralding a visit many fear may be his last.

The pontiff has grown increasingly frail in the three years since he was last in Poland, beset by symptoms of Parkinson's disease, as well as knee and hip ailments. During his four-day visit, 140 doctors and a hospital were on standby.

"I trust that this visit will fortify not only us, here in Poland, but also your holiness," President Aleksander Kwasniewski said, greeting the pope.

Arriving from throughout the country on packed trains and buses, pilgrims during the four-day papal visit were expected to number more than 4 million. To maintain order, authorities have banned the sale of alcohol in the cities on the pope's itinerary.

The religious highlight of the trip will be the consecration today of the God's Mercy basilica in Krakow's Lagiewniki district, a popular sanctuary dedicated to St. Faustine, a mystic nun.

The pontiff will say Mass for up to 2½ million people in Krakow tomorrow, making up for missing the service owing to illness on his last visit.

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