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Thursday, June 17, 1999 Published at 21:09 GMT 22:09 UK

World: Europe

Pope bids farewell to Poland

Wiping away a tear at the farewell ceremony at Krakow airport

The Pope has returned to Rome after what is likely to be his final visit to Poland.

His Lot Polish Airlines plane landed at Ciampino airport just before 9 pm (1900 GMT), where he was welcomed by Italy's President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

On the last day of his gruelling 13-day trip he visited Krakow and said a private mass for personal friends in Wawel Cathedral, where he was cardinal before his election as pontiff in 1978.

[ image: Hometown welcome for the Pontiff in Wadowice on Wednesday]
Hometown welcome for the Pontiff in Wadowice on Wednesday
He then visited the grave of his parents where he lit a candle and prayed on his knees for five minutes.

The Pope, who is 79, is aware that his age and failing health may prevent him from returning to his homeland.

A bout of influenza forced him to cancel Tuesday's programme, but aides said he recovered enough to add an extra four hours to the last day's schedule.

After Krakow he went to Gliwice, the southern city he was meant to visit on Tuesday.

"May God reward you for your saintly patience," he told an appreciative crowd.

David Willey reports on the Pope's emotional visit to his home town
"I would never stand such a Pope. He's coming, he's not coming, then he does come..."

The Pope then moved on to Czestochowa and Jasna Gora, Poland's holiest shrine, a site he has visited on every major trip to the country. He joined 250,000 pilgrims in worship.

On Wednesday Pope John Paul II visited his home town of Wadowice, a small town near Krakow.

He spoke to the crowd in the main square, in front of the church where he once served as altar boy, and referred nostalgically to the warmth of his former family home - a modest, first-floor apartment just around the corner.

[ image: The Pope prayed at the grave of his parents]
The Pope prayed at the grave of his parents
The Pope's home is now a museum, which was visited by over 150,000 people last year.

Earlier the Pope had travelled to the southern town of Stary Sacz, where he held mass in front of 650,000 people and canonised a 13th century Polish princess.

Correspondents say the strain of his demanding schedule has begun to show on the Pope, who has looked tired and has been speaking slowly.

On Saturday, he fell and cut his head; the wound required three stitches.

His planned visit to Armenia on Friday has been postponed, as has an appointment scheduled for Sunday, to allow him to recover after the longest of his 87 trips abroad since becoming Pope.

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