John Paul II lashed out at genetic engineering, euthanasia and "the noisy propaganda of liberalism" before an estimated 2.2 million of the Roman Catholic faithful attending an open-air mass yesterday in Krakow, the city closest to his heart.
Looking frail as he trembled and slurred his words during the three-hour mass, the 82-year-old Pope said he would like to return again to Poland for his 10th official visit as pontiff, but said "this is entirely in God's hands."
Although it was impossible to find any Pole in the crowd who would contemplate the idea that John Paul may resign because of ill health, it was clear that many were there because they believed it may be their last chance to see him visit his homeland.
As for the Pope, who ends a four-day visit to the Krakow region today, he made only one allusion to the frequent talk that he might step down. When the crowd began chanting "Stay with us, Stay with us," he responded: "Are you telling me that I should leave Rome?"
In his homily, John Paul was harshly critical of man putting himself "in God's place" by acting as though God did not exist and claiming the right to "interfere in the mystery of human life."
"[Man] wishes to determine human life through genetic manipulation and to establish the limit of death," he told the crowd, gathered on the vast Blonia common in the centre of this historic city in southern Poland. "Rejecting divine law and moral principles, he openly attacks the family."
The Pope also criticized what he called the "false ideology of freedom" and those who espouse "the noisy propaganda of liberalism, of freedom without responsibility."
The crowd listened attentively, but even in a devoutly Catholic country many question some of the church's teachings. Although 80 to 90 per cent of Poland's population declare themselves Catholic, and almost half say they attend mass weekly, there are questions -- though no criticism is ever aimed at the Pope himself, revered as the country's most famous son.
Darek Ulman, a 22-year-old student who called John Paul "the rock of my faith," said he doesn't see eye-to-eye with the church over divorce and birth control. For one thing, he sees no problem with the use of condoms. "It's used for safety. Of course it's a good idea."
Anna Stajniak, a 56-year-old biochemist who has seen John Paul on all of his nine papal visits to Poland, said he "means everything to me." Yet Ms. Stajniak believes that abortion should be "an individual decision," and has no problems with Poland's current law, which allows abortion for limited medical reasons.
Iwona, a 40-year-old physiotherapist, and her husband Marek, a teacher, drove 270 kilometres from the southeast corner of Poland to see the Pope for the first time in person. Iwona sees him as a "great moral authority" and agrees with his opposition to genetic engineering.
But she has many reservations about the church establishment. "The church is not very consistent in what it does. It says it's against divorce, but then it agrees to church divorces. And most people think that celibacy for priests should be done away with," she said said, adding quickly, "It does not mean that I don't have faith."
During the mass, the Pope beatified three Polish priests and one nun, an important step on the path to eventual sainthood. He clearly weakened during the long mass, held under a hot sun, but he showed the same determination that has marked his 97 foreign trips since becoming Pope in 1978.
The visit has been an emotional homecoming for John Paul, who yesterday visited the cemetery where his parents and brother are buried as well as the cathedral where, as Karol Wojtyla, he first celebrated mass as a priest in 1946.
"I ask for prayers for all the current parishioners at St. Florian, a prayer for the living and the dead, and a prayer for the Pope during his lifetime and after his death," he said, in a rare reference to his own mortality.
For the outdoor mass, people began to arrive in the middle of the night at Krakow's 58-hectare commons, to secure the best vantage point. But most of the vast throng had to content itself with watching the service on big-screen TVs.
The crowd enthusiastically waved Polish and Vatican flags and sang hymns and Polish folk tunes, yet there was an undertone of reverence and a sense that this might be John Paul's final visit.
"I figure it might be the last opportunity I have to see the Pope. I wanted to hear him speak," said Tomek Stasiak, a 26-year-old student of cultural anthropology.
For Mr. Stasiak, religion is an essential part of the Polish character. "Polish people have some bad qualities -- we drink too much and we talk too much. But one of our good qualities is our faith."