WARSAW, Poland – Pope Benedict XVI began a rare foreign pilgrimage Thursday with a trip to Poland, partly to burnish his relations with one of the most devoted Catholic flocks in the world but also to honor his predecessor, John Paul II, revered as a national hero here.
As soon as he stepped off his plane at the Warsaw airport, Benedict gave a greeting in Polish and declared that he had “come to follow in the footsteps” of John Paul’s life. Tens of thousands of flag-waving Poles turned out on the capital’s streets to give the German pontiff a welcome that was warm but muted compared with the receptions for John Paul on his frequent visits home.
“I have come to Poland, the beloved homeland of my great predecessor Pope John Paul II, in order to inhale, as he used to do, this atmosphere of faith in which you live,” Benedict said in an address to priests at St. John’s Cathedral.
Benedict’s itinerary for his four-day visit includes trips to Krakow, the southern city where John Paul served as archbishop for more than a dozen years, and the nearby town of Wadowice, where the Polish pope was born.
The pope’s final stop, on Sunday, will be the memorials at the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, where he will meet with camp survivors and Jewish leaders. Given his German nationality and his personal history as a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth, his words and actions at Auschwitz are likely to draw enormous scrutiny.
“It is a great occasion for him to say something or to make a gesture that would resonate not just in Poland, but around the world,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a Jewish leader and co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, who counts himself as an admirer of Benedict. “Will he use that opportunity? I don’t know, of course.”
On Thursday, the pontiff’s motorcade made a brief detour past the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the desperate 1943 revolt by Jews against the city’s Nazi occupiers. Benedict made a gesture of blessing but did not stop as he rode past, disappointing Poles who had gathered at the site. The pope and his entourage also drove past two other memorials to the Polish resistance during World War II.
In comments to reporters on his plane before his arrival, Benedict said he was making the trip “first and foremost as a Catholic,” and not as a German.