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Saturday, 17 August, 2002, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Eyewitness: Crowds cheer as Pope reminisces
Pope John Paul II looked tired by the end of the mass

They cheered, they chanted and they sang as they waved their flags and banners.

The noise made by the crowd was what you would expect in a football stadium, not the tranquil interior of a Catholic shrine.

But this was no ordinary service, and the object of the applause was no ordinary priest.

John Paul II, enjoying his first full day back on Polish soil, was consecrating the Basilica of the Divine Mercy, in the Krakow suburb of Lagiewniki.

Huge crowds assembled to greet John Paul II
His poor health, and his lack of mobility, meant he was unable to walk down the aisle unaided.

Standing on a wheeled platform, gripping a handrail, the bent figure of the 82-year-old pontiff was gently pulled forward towards the altar.

As the packed congregation continued to call out their welcome, he was eased into the papal throne.

Throughout the service, he spoke in a voice that was clear, if a little shaky.

I used to come here during the Nazi occupation

Pope John Paul in Krakow
By the end of the two-hour mass he was beginning to look tired. But he surprised everyone by recalling the days he had spent in the area during the Second World War.

"I used to come here during the Nazi occupation," he said, a reference to the time he spent labouring at a local chemical works, to avoid being deported.

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

"How could one imagine then that this man in wooden shoes would one day be consecrating a basilica."

The story delighted his audience, and was a reminder that this trip to Poland is a chance for the Pope to revisit the places of his youth perhaps for the last time.

Many waited for hours in the baking sun
The new basilica, a strikingly modern design in the shape of a boat, recognises the work of the first Polish woman to be made a saint.

Sister Faustina Kowalska became a nun in 1925 as one of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy.

She claimed to have had a vision, in which Christ appeared to her, dressed in white robes. She wrote a diary based on his revelations about the message of God's mercy.

But her superiors refused to believe that Jesus would have appeared to a humble nun, and she died of tuberculosis at the age of 33.

Sentimental journey

In 1959, her writings were banned by the Vatican - a decision now blamed on a faulty translation from the Polish original.

But after becoming Pope in 1978, John Paul II quickly lifted the ban, and two years ago he made her a saint.

The Shrine of the Divine Mercy now attracts millions of pilgrims from across Poland, and many other countries. There are also a number of websites dedicated to Sister Faustina.

The consecration ceremony drew large crowds to the new basilica.

The Shrine of the Divine Mercy
The Shrine attracts millions of pilgrims

Those unable to get inside waited for hours in the baking sun, watching the service on a large screen.

At the end, dozens of priests emerged to offer them communion.

John Paul II was then due to have talks with the Polish president and political leaders, who want his continued support for their efforts to secure a place for Poland in an enlarged European Union.

Open air mass

A referendum is likely to be held next year, and there is anxiety about the level of opposition to the negotiations, particularly in rural areas.

Some parish priests are believed to be against the idea, seeing the EU as a secularising force that could diminish the influence of the Church.

On his arrival yesterday, the Pope said he believed his homeland was "bravely marching" towards the goals of peace and prosperity.

But in a pointed reference to the current high rate of unemployment in Poland, and the poverty of those without jobs, he stressed that the country's future could not be built on injustice and suffering.

For many Poles, the highlight of the Pope's visit will come at an open air mass on Sunday on common land on the edge of Krakow.

With concern that this could be their last chance to see John Paul II to his homeland, the crowd is expected to exceed two million.

See also:

17 Aug 02 | Media reports
16 Aug 02 | Europe
16 Aug 02 | Media reports
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