Pope John Paul II preached at his favorite mountain retreat Friday, listing the gains the Roman Catholic Church has made since the fall of communism and telling his countrymen to be proud of their religious identity.
John Paul, his face reddening in the mountain sun, celebrated Mass under a wooden altar at the bottom of a ski jump in Poland’s leading winter resort in the Tatra Mountains. About 250,000 people attended.
Later in the day, as part of his nostalgic tour of his homeland, he was reunited with 13 classmates from his elementary school in nearby Wadowice, and rode a cable car up Kasprowy Wierch.
The view from the top of the mountain where he used to ski was obscured by scattered showers, but “he didn’t mind the rain,” Wojciech Kozak, the cable car operator, said.
John Paul also visited a small convent at Kalatowki and sang with the Albertine nuns in their chapel.
Although many Poles worry that this will be the last trip home for the frail, 77-year-old pope, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls again dismissed such speculation.
“The Holy Father has not expressed any last will yet,” he joked, adding the pope is already thinking about his next trip to Poland, although he wouldn’t say when that might be.
After a day off Thursday, the pope looked rested and was clearly moved by the crowd’s calls of “we love you” when he arrived for morning Mass.
“For a long time, you have been inviting the pope,” he responded. “And today we can say Zakopane has managed it, and I have too.”
John Paul beatified two Polish nuns for their assistance to the poor at the turn of the century. Beatification is the last step before possible sainthood.
His message was centered on the role of the Catholic church in Polish society and was intended to defend the church against charges that it has too much power.
After referring to a cross on a nearby mountaintop, the pope said “do not be ashamed of this cross. Try every day to accept it and to return Christ’s love.
“We thank Divine Providence that that crucifix has returned to the schools, public offices and hospitals. May it ever remain there” as a reminder of “our Christian dignity and national identity.”
Since the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, crosses have been affixed in many public offices and the Catholic religion is taught in the public schools, although students can opt for an ethics course instead.
John Paul often hiked and skied in the area while archbishop of Krakow. He arrived in Zakopane late Wednesday in the middle of an 11-day pilgrimage to Poland, his seventh return since becoming pope in 1978.
Many in the crowd wore traditional highlander dress - ivory wool pants or colorful skirts, embroidered white tops and sheepskin vests, wide-brimmed black hats and red beaded necklaces. As more than 100 violinists played old mountain tunes, the pope even swayed a bit, arms extended, as if he wanted to dance.
Janina Waliczek, 65, from Zakopane, said she was touched by the pope’s comment that he could always count on the highlanders to be faithful to the Catholic church.
“People from the Tatras are his best friends,” she said.