"God has a well-developed sense of humor: A Polish pope is followed by a German pope. No mortal could have arranged it better," said Father Jan Gura, a priest from the city of Poznan, of Pope Benedict XVI's first visit to Poland.
Aside from official ceremonies, the first day of Benedict's visit yesterday was marked by two phenomena: the constant mentions of his German origins, and the inevitable comparisons with his predecessor, John Paul II, the Polish pope who is revered as a saint by his countrymen. But above all, the Poles - from senior officials to ordinary folk, from priests to politicians - were talking about the irony of fate that has brought them a German pope. They were not exactly critical; rather, they spoke as if stating a fact whose meaning they were still puzzling over. "The Holy Father will naturally remind us that God is love," said Gura. "It will be astonishing to hear those words from a German on Polish soil."
Yesterday, it seemed, many of the faithful felt more like Poles who remembered the horrors that World War II had wreaked on their country than like Catholics welcoming the head of their church. But for all the historical memories that Benedict's visit inevitably evoked, the Poles received him with warmth and affection.
Benedict's choice of Poland for his first trip abroad of his own initiative since becoming pope was not accidental: Not only does this help portray him as continuing in John Paul II's path, but Poland is the largest Catholic country in Europe, at a time when much of continent has undergone a process of secularization. In his welcome speech to Benedict, Polish President Lech Kaczynski, himself a staunch Catholic, stated openly that Poland intends to work within the European Union to try to promote Christian values.
Some Poles, however, would like the visit to have political as well as spiritual ramifications: They expressed hope that it would improve relations between Poles and Germans, which remain strained despite Poland's entry into the EU.
Gura's aid, Pyotr Zhembosky, said that he expected a great deal from Benedict's visit to Auschwitz. "For me, the most beautiful moment will be his personal prayer at Auschwitz," Zhembosky said. "A son of the same nation that once invaded our country and started a war will be praying with the Polish nation. I think that is very symbolic."
Poland's tiny Jewish community also attributes great importance to Benedict's visit, and particularly his planned trip to Auschwitz on Sunday. "For us, the Jews of Poland, this is a very important event," said Alicia Kovos, head of the Jewish community in Poznan. "The pope, a German, will visit the huge graveyard that the Germans dug for our brothers and sisters. I think that for the pope as well, the visit to this site will be an important event, perhaps even a shock. I'm certain that he'll talk about the destruction that occurred in this place with much tact, but at the same time, with a desire to adhere to the historical truth, which holds the Germans responsible for this tragedy."
Kaczynski also said that the pope's visit to the death camp - which every Pole who gave interviews yesterday was careful to call by its German name, Auschwitz, rather than Oswiecem, the Polish town where it is located - "would be significant for relations between Catholics and Jews."
Thus far, Benedict has approached this issue very cautiously, and on the first day of his visit, he largely confined himself to his theological-spiritual role. However, immediately after landing, he reiterated that the visit would include a trip to Auschwitz - where "together we will pray that the wounds of the past century will heal, thanks to the remedy that God in his goodness has prescribed for us by calling us to forgive one another."
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