"This is a new pilgrimage in which I can see how Poles handle their reconquered freedom," the Pope said today, reiterating the famous words of his 1979 visit at the height of the Communist regime: "Be not afraid."
As he began his ninth trip to Poland, John Paul II was welcomed by a former Communist, President Aleksander Kwasniewski, and by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, his successor in the Archdiocese of Krakow.
The atmosphere was relaxed. When the Pope greeted a detachment of soldiers, they broke ranks to take close-up photographs of the Pontiff.
John Paul II appeared in great humor. Smiling, he interrupted his address and asked to be excused for delivering it sitting down. "The fault is that of the lectern they have given me, which doesn't let me stand up," he said.
Singing Tatra mountain songs, some 20,000 people awaited the Holy Father at and near the Krakow-Balice airport.
Smiling and evidently moved, the Pope descended the Alitalia plane's steps on his own, after his flight from Rome. The crowds cried: "Welcome home," "We love you," "Welcome to Krakow."
The trip is a nostalgic homecoming for John Paul II -- he was archbishop of Krakow before his election as Pope -- as well as an effort to show solidarity with his countrymen, many of whom are suffering economic hardships under capitalism and Poland's preparation for membership in the European Union.
"What is happening in Poland is of profound concern to me," the Holy Father said. "I know that our homeland has changed very much since my first visit in 1979."
The Catholic Church has always affirmed that "a happy future cannot be built for society based on the poverty, injustice and suffering of a brother," the Pope explained, referring to the 18% of working-age Poles who are unemployed.
After criticizing models of development based on materialism, the Holy Father said that "men who respect the spirit of Catholic social ethics cannot remain indifferent in face of the predicament of those who are without work, who live in increasing poverty without the possibility of improving their situation and the future of their children."
To a new Poland characterized by inequalities, the Pope offered the message of Divine Mercy proclaimed by Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938).
John Paul II said that, on Saturday, he will fulfill the first and principal stage of his pilgrimage: the dedication of the new shrine of Divine Mercy, located on the outskirts of Krakow -- the "world center of devotion to the merciful Jesus," he added.
As a reflection of God's mercy, the Holy Father also pointed to the examples of Zygmunt Szczesny Felinski (1822-1895), Jan Balicki (1869-1948), Jan Beyzym (1850-1912) and Sancja Szymkowiak (1910-1942), all of whom he will beatify Sunday during a Mass at Blonie Park.
Later that day he will make two private stops, one at his family's tomb in the cemetery of Rakowice, the second at Wawel Cathedral for a moment of prayer.
On Monday, the Holy Father will celebrate the fourth centenary of the dedication of the shrine of the Passion of Jesus and of the Virgin of Sorrows in the Basilica of Kalwaria Zedrzydowska.