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Poland mourns its greatest son

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Krakow, Poland — As they had done so many times before, they came in their thousands to the square facing Krakow's Bishop's Palace to wait for him to appear at the second-floor window and talk to them. Only this time, they knew that Pope John Paul II would never come.

Poland was a country bereft this weekend, and in Krakow, as elsewhere, regular life came to a virtual standstill. Shops, cinemas and theatres closed to honour John Paul's passing. LOT Polish Airlines suspended films on its flights as a sign of respect.

Poles gathered by the thousand to chant hymns and ponder their collective loss in this picturesque city along the Vistula River, where Karol Wojtyla attended seminary, was ordained and became a cardinal.

He was born at Wadowice, about 50 kilometres to the southwest.

Poland is an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, but John Paul was not only a spiritual father to Poles -- he was their liberator from the hands of communism, and their most influential son. Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa and Ronald Reagan may have had equally important roles, but it was difficult yesterday to tell that to John Paul's countrymen.

In the square opposite Bishop's Palace, Magdalena Rejkowska recalled congregating in front of the same historic yellow-stucco structure with swarms of young Poles in August of 2002, in what turned out to be the last of John Paul's nine papal pilgrimages to Poland. His health was weakened by Parkinson's disease, and there were whispers at the time that he might not return.

"It was after 11 o'clock," she recalled. "He was inside but we wanted him to come to the window before he went to sleep. He did finally appear.

"It was a kind of farewell. Then he said, 'I'll see you again, God willing.' "

Ms. Rejkowska was mourning last night with her husband and 18-month-old child, lighting a candle at one of the makeshift altars that have popped up across the square. Telling her story, she was overwrought.

"I'm 25, and this is the only pope I've ever known," she said, barely holding back tears. "He was like a second father to us."

The absence was disconcerting to many.

"We are full of fear," said Anna Boguslaw, a 43-year-old sales clerk who said John Paul was a source of needed stability during the massive changes that have shaken Poland over the past quarter-century. "He was watching over us, making sure everything was okay."

Her husband Wator, a coal miner who proudly recalled participating in eight of the Pope's nine visits, said that there will be a void in Polish life without John Paul. "Politicians are bad, and there are a lot of scandals," he said, by way of comparison.

The couple and their two adolescent children joined an estimated 50,000 of the faithful for an open-air mass at the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, a monumental new church consecrated by John Paul 2½ years ago. The site is located amid the industrial sprawl of suburban Krakow at a pilgrimage site made famous by St. Faustyna Kowalska, a young nun whose visions in the 1930s have attracted a large following. She was canonized by John Paul in 2000.

From his earliest days as an ordained priest, in the late 1940s, John Paul became a figure of quiet resistance to communism, from within the Polish Catholic Church. As a bishop, archbishop and cardinal, he challenged the regime by constantly petitioning for permission to build new churches, organizing religious processions and complaining about the military draft for ordained priests.

When he was elected Pope, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev tried in vain to stop the Polish government from allowing him to return to his homeland in his first pilgrimage in 1979, clearly fearful of its impact in undermining communism. His fears ended up being well-based, as 10 million Poles -- almost one-third of the country -- turned out for his giant masses and public meetings.

Danutaa Loferska, a retired waitress, said she, too, frets about a future without John Paul. "He was a great influence on everything in this country. People may soon forget. Maybe there will be changes for the worse."

Ms. Loferska is particularly concerned that growing materialism associated with Poland's membership in the European Union will push spiritual values aside. "It's started already. People are only talking about material things."

Andrej Gaweda, 60, a retired railway worker, said he worries that Poland has lost its most effective voice.

"He contributed to the abolition of communism and he contributed a lot to the whole world by helping to pull down the Berlin Wall," Mr. Gaweda said. "Somebody will take his place, but it will not be as it has been. This voice of Poland will not be viewed in the same way internationally in the same way again."

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