By Bruce Johnston, Rome Correspondent HUNDREDS of thousands of Poles flocked to see their compatriot, Pope John Paul II, this week as he began what some predict will be his last visit to his cherished homeland.
The pontiff, who turned 79 last month, will spend almost 13 days in Poland, making the trip the fourth longest of his 87 foreign visits as Bishop of Rome.
During his stay he will make 23 helicopter flights and will celebrate 109 beatifications and one canonisation.
He will travel to at least two different dioceses each day, with only one exception; he was scheduled to spend a restful few days this week at the monastery at Wigry, near the border with Lithuania, an area known for its forests and lakes.
Officially, the trip — the theme of which is "God is love" — is meant to mark the 20th anniversary of John Paul II's first visit to Poland and the tenth anniversary since the fall of Communism.
This symbolism was clear from the moment the papal plane touched down on Saturday at Rebiewchowo Airport in the port city of Gdansk, where Solidarity — the first independent union in the Communist bloc — was formed in 1980, and later defended staunchly by the Pope.
The Holy Father was met at the airport by Aleksander Kwasniewski, President of Poland, and in the afternoon he celebrated an outdoor Mass in Gdansk's Sopot Hippodrome, marking the 1,000th anniversary of St Adalbert, Poland's patron saint.
"It was in this city," the Pope recalled, that Soli darity "opened the doors of freedom to the countries that were enslaved by totalitarian governments.
"It brought the Berlin Wall down and contributed to the unity of Europe, which has been divided since World War Two." Days before the Pope's visit, miners and farmers joined trades union members in protest against the effects of Poland's shift from Communism to capitalism. The Pope warned that economic development had to go hand in hand with "spiritual development", in order to create a "civilisation of love".
He said: "There is no happiness, no future for man nor nation without love."
Vatican watchers are calling the Pope's seventh visit to his homeland a "difficult" trip.
Although the neoCommunist government that defeated Lech Walesa was in turn defeated by the centre-right, to the Pope's dismay the country has continued to move away from Church social doctrine.
But in a country with a 95 per cent Catholic population, the Pope is still able to attract hundreds of thousands of faithful. Over 300,000 people turned out for Mass in the northern diocese of Pelplin, from where the Pope travelled to Lichen to bless the new Church of the Shrine of the Madonna of Lichen. After just two hours at the shrine he was whisked by helicopter to the city of Bydgoszcz.
Towards the end of his gruelling trip the Pope will travel to Wadowice, where he was born. While in Cracow, where he was made a priest, then a bishop and finally a cardinal, he will visit the cemetery where his parents and his brother, Edward, are buried. He will also celebrate the 1000th aniversary of the archdiocese.
In Warsaw, the Polish capital, where the Pope said Mass before 1.5 million in June 1979, he will beatify 108 Polish martyrs who died in World War Two and address the Sejm, Poland's parliament. He will also pray at the monument for the victims of the Holocaust in Warsaw's Umschlagplatz, where thousands of Jews were transported to Nazi deathcamps.
Meanwhile, plans for the Pope to travel early next month to Armenia faltered this week, following news of the worsening condition of Karekin I, the Orthodox patriarch, following an operation for cancer. Officials travelling with the Pope to Poland agreed to arrange an emergency summit in Warsaw between an emissary of the patriarch and the pontiff, according to Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
In September, after his standard holiday in the Ital ian mountains, the Pope plans to travel to Slovenia. After vists to Mexico and the I.J6 in Jan uary, Romania list month and now Poland — for his seventh, and longest, visit — Vatican ources say the Pope is conidering a trip to Iraq it October or November,followed by visits to Gergia and India in Decembe.