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Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 19:03 GMT 20:03 UK
Pope pleads for peace and mercy
The God's Mercy shrine at Lagiewniki
The Pope consecrated a new shrine near Krakow
Pope John Paul II has made an emotional appeal for an end to war and human suffering, on the first full day of a visit to his native Poland.

The Pope said mankind was experiencing bewilderment in the face of many manifestations of evil.

He was speaking at a Mass to consecrate the Basilica of Divine Mercy near Krakow, a shrine to Poland's first woman saint.


Where hatred and the thirst for revenge dominate, where war brings suffering and death to the innocent, there the grace of mercy is needed

Pope John Paul II
Tens of thousands of people lined his route into the city, greeting the Pope on what is being seen as his farewell visit to his homeland.

There has been intense speculation about the pontiff's health, but the Vatican says he is not planning to step down.

However, this visit - limited to his home town of Krakow - represents a large scaling-down of the gruelling 20-city schedule he followed during his last trip to Poland three years ago.

Plea for mercy

Twelve cardinals and more than 150 bishops attended Saturday's consecration, the first major religious ceremony of the Pope's visit.

Addressing the congregation, the pontiff said a cry for mercy seemed to be rising up in every continent.

"Where hatred and the thirst for revenge dominate, where war brings suffering and death to the innocent, there the grace of mercy is needed."

Crowds in Krakow
Crowds chanted: "Poland loves you!"
The ultra-modern shrine, built in the shape of a boat at a cost of several million dollars, commemorates Saint Faustina - a nun who died just before World War II and claimed to have had visions of Jesus Christ.

The Vatican was at first suspicious of the story and banned publication of the nun's diary.

But when Karol Wojtyla became Pope, he reversed the ban and pushed for Sister Faustina's rapid beatification and canonisation.

Catholic decline

The day in Krakow was deeply nostalgic for the Pope.

"I wish to say that many of my personal memories are connected with this place," he said at the end of Mass in the basilica - across a field from the Solvay chemical plant and quarry where he worked as a forced labourer during the Nazi occupation.

"Until this day I remember this road... Every day I walked this road coming to work for different shifts in wooden shoes that one used to wear in those days.

"How could one imagine that this man in wooden shoes would one day be consecrating this Basilica," he said.

Specially commissioned stamps
New stamps commemorate the visit

The Pope also met President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Leszek Miller.

Mr Kwasniewski said the Pope was ''in good shape, intellectually perfect," while Mr Miller said he had told the pontiff it would not be his last visit and declared the government's readiness to receive him at any time.

The Holy Father's first visit to Poland in 1979, a year after becoming Pope, was widely credited with galvanising opposition to the country's Communist government.

The BBC's David Willey says that Polish Catholicism has clearly become more diluted under democratic government and a free market economy, and official church statistics reveal that only 10% of Polish believers fully identify with church teaching.

However, the Pope remains immensely popular in Poland. About 80% of the population are practising Roman Catholics, while many non-Catholics also have pictures of him on their walls.

And the government is keen to enlist his support for Poland's entry into the European Union.

The largest crowd during the Pope's stay is expected on Sunday, when he will say an open-air mass in Blonie, near the centre of Krakow.

More than two million Poles are expected to celebrate the Mass, at which the Pope will beatify four people, including former Warsaw archbishop Zygmunt Felinski, who died in 1895.

Afterwards, the Pope will visit the graves of his parents.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Brian Barron
"On the streets the response is heart felt and immediate"
The BBC's Robert Piggot
"The pope had a lot of rapport with the crowd"
See also:

17 Aug 02 | Media reports
16 Aug 02 | Europe
01 Jul 02 | Europe
15 Jun 99 | Europe
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