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Friday, 16 August, 2002, 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK
Pope's joy at coming 'home'
It was a moment many Poles feared they would never see again.
But Pope John Paul II is once again back on Polish soil at the start of a four-day visit to the city where he spent much of his life.
On a grey evening, his plane touched down at the airport that now bears his name, on the outskirts of Krakow.
Thousands of Poles, many in national costume, had been waiting for hours in the rain. As his aircraft came to a halt they burst into song.
After slowly descending the aircraft steps, a container of Polish soil was held up for him for a symbolic kiss, and he was handed a bouquet of flowers by a child.
Cardinal Franciszek Macharski told the crowd that what had seemed inconceivable had become a reality: the Pope had returned to them.
"A moment ago the Holy Father kissed Polish soil," he said.
"We respond to this kiss with our reverence, gratitude and love."
After the speeches of welcome, the Pope addressed the crowd, telling them of the emotion and joy he felt every time he returned to his homeland.
"Events in Poland are very close to my heart," he said.
"I am aware how much our homeland has changed since my first visit in 1979.
"This is a new pilgrimage during which I can see for myself how Poles are managing their regained freedom.
"I am convinced that our country is bravely marching towards new goals of development in peace and prosperity."
But the Pope said nobody who worked within the spirit of Catholic social ethics could remain indifferent to the fate of those without jobs, who lived in a state of increasing poverty, with no prospect of improvement for themselves or their children.
"I know that many Polish families, especially the largest ones, and many unemployed and elderly people are carrying the weight of social and economic change," he said.
"I wish to tell all of them that I spiritually share their burden and their fate."
Along the roads leading into Krakow, crowds have been waiting for a glimpse of the Pope.
Almost every house along the route shows the deep affection in which the Pope is held in his homeland.
The yellow and white Vatican flag is everywhere, flying alongside the red and white of Poland.
Photographs of the Pope have been placed in the windows.
During his visit, John Paul II will be staying in the residence of the Archbishop of Krakow, a job he held before his election as Pope in 1978.
Born in the town of Wadowice, 30 miles away, he arrived in the city as a student in 1938.
The outbreak of war the following year, and the Nazi occupation, meant he had to study for the priesthood in secret.
Ordained as a priest in 1946, he then faced the challenge of being part of a church within a Communist state.
As Pope, he is credited by many of his fellow countrymen with helping to secure their freedom.
And as the most famous Pole in the world, has helped to give the country a sense of identity and status.
Piotr Bozyk, a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, says John Paul II is very much a product of Poland, and that has been reflected in his papacy.
"This country has had a tragic history, but out of that pain he has taken something positive and used it for the benefit of humanity," he said.
"It is about important moral issues, not just politics, and he is the first Pole to really achieve international success.
"So while people think about what the Pope has done for Poland, they should also think about what his Polish background has contributed to Catholicism."
When the Pope was last in Krakow, in 1999, his age and poor health made many people wonder if it might be his last visit.
As if to confirm their fears, a fever prevented him from attending a huge open-air mass that drew a crowd of over a million.
Now he is back, and the crowds are likely to be even greater.
According to the latest estimates, between two and three million people are expected to gather on an area of common land on the outskirts of the city covering 120 acres.
More than fifty tons of steel have been used to construct a huge platform and altar, visible across the entire area.
Throughout the Pope's stay, precautions will be in force to deal with any medical emergency.
According to the health ministry, 140 doctors will be on standby, including a dozen eminent professors.
Facilities are available at the city's hospital to cope with any papal health problem.
Three medical helicopters and a fleet of 10 ambulances are ready to provide emergency transport.
Clearly, all of Poland is hoping that such facilities will not be required, and in churches across the country, prayers have been said for the health of the Pope and the success of his visit.
They want nothing to spoil what should be a memorable four days for John Paul II and the people of his homeland.
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