Pope Pays Tribute to Predecessor with Poland Trip

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Poland on a visit aimed at encouraging Poles to retain their Catholic faith, even as they integrate with a mostly secular European Union. Before departing Rome, the German-born pontiff said the trip was in part a tribute to his predecessor, Polish-born Pope John Paul II.

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Pope Benedict XVI is in Warsaw today, beginning a four-day visit to Poland. It's his second trip outside Italy since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church just over a year ago.

Before departing Rome, the German-born Pope said he was coming to Poland to pay tribute to his predecessor - Poland's favorite son, Pope John Paul II - and to promote faith and social progress. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Warsaw.

And Sylvia, how was this non-Polish Pope welcomed?


Well, he - the streets of Warsaw are all decked out with large posters and with the words Our Pope, an expression that had long been reserved for John Paul. He was welcomed at the airport by President Lech Kaczynski and a military honor guard and a choir singing one of the favorite hymns of Benedict's predecessor.

In his opening remarks, Benedict said he had come to follow in John Paul's footsteps, from his boyhood to his departure for the 1978 Conclave in Rome, where he was elected Pope. He said this will be no mere sentimental journey, but rather a journey of faith.

MONTAGNE: And last year, Benedict traveled to his native Germany. He visited a synagogue there which was destroyed by the Nazis. What are the big moments, or most powerful moments, of this trip?

POGGIOLI: Well, in terms of symbolism, the most significant site will be the last one, Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. It was on his visit as Pope to the death camp that John Paul laid the groundwork for a new path in Christian-Jewish relations. This visit by Benedict - a German Pope who acknowledged serving in the Hitler Youth - will have great resonance for both Catholic-Jewish relations and for German-Polish reconciliation after the Nazi occupation of Poland.

In fact, shortly after assuming the Papacy last year, Benedict said he saw a providential design in a German Pope following a Polish one. He said both of them on different sides and in different situations were forced to experience the barbarity of the Second World War.

Another major issue will be Europe's loss of faith and growing secularization. Benedict will urge Poles to remain strong in their faith and set an example that could trigger what the Vatican calls a new evangelization of Europe. He'll be doing more than paying tribute to John Paul's legacy. He'll urge Poles to build a society based on John Paul's teachings, especially on issues such as abortion, marriage, bio-technology, and social justice - a society that sets an example for the rest of Europe.

MONTAGNE: Let's turn for just a moment to the political climate in Poland. That country recently had a significant change in government.

POGGIOLI: Oh, well, he's going to find a very polarized society, with a conservative government coalition that includes xenophobes and Catholic fundamentalists, with a strong strain of skepticism toward the European Union. He'll have to deal with an overt revival of anti-Semitism that manifests itself in the very popular Catholic broadcaster Radio Maria. This network is credited with helping the conservatives win in the last elections, and has often hosted programs with Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic commentaries. Last month, the Vatican formally reprimanded Radio Maria, but the radio replied accusing Benedict of being biased in favor of Jews because he's German.

So Benedict faces a delicate balancing act. He wants Polish Catholics to set an example for the rest of the European Union, but the most devout Poles are strongly anti-EU and therefore somewhat isolationist. The Poles who care most about Europe are those who don't care much about the Catholic Church and its conservative values.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thanks very much.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli with Pope Benedict XVI, who's visiting Poland.

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