German pope in Poland seeking to heal wounds

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Poles gave Pope Benedict XVI a warm greeting Thursday – if not the rapturous reception reserved for native son Pope John Paul II – as the German-born pontiff pledged to strive to heal painful wounds from the “tragic tyranny” of the Nazis.

Benedict made clear his trip was “no mere sentimental journey” but was intended to keep alive the goals of his friend and mentor, John Paul – German-Polish reconciliation, strengthening relations with Jews and keeping Poland a beacon of Catholicism in secular Europe.

He drew a roar of applause at the airport as he launched into his welcoming speech – in Polish, later switching to Italian.

“I have very much wanted to make this visit to the native land and people of my beloved predecessor, the servant of God, John Paul II,” Benedict said. “I have come to follow in the footsteps of his life.”

Poles like Benedict’s emphasis on continuing John Paul’s legacy, and don’t seem to mind that he is German despite the memory of the war – which left Warsaw in ruins. But many still miss John Paul.

“It’s not the same as with our pope,” said 75-year-old Wanda Nowicka, who was waiting on a downtown street to watch Benedict pass by on his way to his first stop at Warsaw’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

“I don’t mind if he is German. He is very friendly and he’s learning Polish and he was a friend of John Paul,” said 72-year-old Aniela Kalisz, who carried a small Vatican flag bearing Benedict’s photo.

Thousands of people lined the motorcade route from the airport to downtown Warsaw – a large crowd by European standards for a visit by the Roman Catholic leader, but small compared to the hundreds of thousands who turned out when John Paul flew into Warsaw in 1979 for the first time since assuming the papacy.

Benedict beamed broadly and waved as he descended from the plane to begin his four-day visit, and managed to keep his skullcap from flying off in a brisk breeze – unlike his arrival on his first foreign trip in Germany last year.

This tour will touch on some of the most painful memories of Europe’s past, and will include a visit Sunday to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, mostly Jews.

“There I hope especially to meet the survivors of Nazi terror who come from different countries, all of whom suffered under that tragic tyranny,” Benedict said at the airport.

“Together we will pray that the wounds of the past century will heal, thanks to the remedy that God in his mercy has prescribed for us by calling us to forgive each other.”

Asked by journalists on the plane how he felt about visiting Auschwitz as a German, the 79-year-old Benedict said, “I am above all a Catholic. I must say that this is the most important point.”

At the airport, a choir sang “The Barge,” John Paul’s favorite song – one sign of how the late pope remains a strong presence in Poland more than a year after his death.

Benedict’s remarks were delivered in Italian or Polish, presumably out of regard for the feelings of the wartime generation in Poland, which suffered enormously at the hands of the Nazi invaders.

In a meeting with Catholic clergy, Benedict noted that John Paul often exhorted the faithful to ask pardon for sins by Catholics through the centuries.

Benedict endorsed this, but added a note of caution, saying “we must guard against the arrogant claim of setting ourselves up to judge earlier generations who lived in different times and in different circumstances.”

“Humble sincerity is needed in order not to deny the sins of the past, and at the same time not to indulge in facile accusations in absence of real evidence, or without regard for the different preconceptions of the time.”

The remarks won applause from the audience. Some Catholic priests have been accused of collaborating with the communists who ruled Poland after the war.

Benedict faced difficult situations himself, and described in his memoirs being enrolled in the Hitler Youth against his will, then risking execution by deserting the army as a draftee days before the war ended.

His first day included a meeting with Polish President Lech Kaczynski, whose gifts to the pontiff included a photo album of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis.

He also addressed a prayer service at a Lutheran church, declaring that efforts to achieve unity among Christian denominations were a “priority” of his papacy.

Other high points on Benedict’s schedule include a Mass Friday in Warsaw, where John Paul inspired the Solidarity movement with his landmark appearance in 1979 during communist rule. Then he heads for John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice, and for Krakow, where the late pope served as archbishop.

Benedict’s trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau is fraught with significance for Catholic-Jewish relations, a favorite cause of John Paul, who also visited there in 1979.

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