To cheers of “Long Live the Pope!” and praise from Poland’s president, Pope John Paul II marked the start of the 20th year of his papacy Thursday.
About 12,000 Poles traveled to Rome to help John Paul celebrate the day in St. Peter’s Square.
The election on Oct. 16, 1978, of the then-archbishop of Krakow as the first non-Italian pope in 455 years - and the first Polish pope ever - stunned a world divided in East and West blocs.
While John Paul watched Thursday from an armchair on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, the crowd waved red and white Polish flags and whirled handkerchiefs and scarves in the Vatican’s colors of yellow and white.
Repeated shouts of “Niech zyje papiez! (Long live the pope!),” resounded across St. Peter’s Square.
“I came here today to be here again because we’ll never have a Polish pope again,” said Barbara Kalecinska, a Krakow native who had been in the square in 1978 when the election of the 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla by his fellow cardinals was announced.
“The last time I was here, he was a young man. Now I see him looking very tried,” said Kalecinska, referring to the 77-year-old pope’s difficulty in moving around and his frequent lack of vigor.
“The pope is the most beloved man on Earth,” said Elzbietta Michalczyk, from southern Poland. “For Poland, he’s the most important citizen in the last 1,000 years.”
John Paul’s staunch championing of Poland’s free trade union Solidarity in the late 1970s has been credited with helping to bring about the downfall of Soviet-bloc Communist rule in 1989.
The pope, his voice hoarse, read a speech devoted to the power of the mass media. The crowd’s journey was arranged by a Catholic Polish radio station.
“Means of communication used in a correct way render a great service to mankind,” John Paul said. But, the media, he added, “must transmit precise and honest information that sticks to the truth, and must also enrich the spirit, looking after the religious and moral formation of man.”