Pope Benedict XVI arrived today in Poland for a four-day visit, in the homeland of his predecessor John Paul II. "I have come to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, along the path of his life," Benedict said in Polish to cheers from the crowd of airport staff and dignitaries who were on hand to greet him.
"This is not just a sentimental journey, but a journey of faith,” he continued. Paying homage to the spiritual heritage of this country, "I want to drink at the abundant spring of your faith, which has flowed incessantly for more than a millennium," he added.
Referring to Poland as "the country of my beloved predecessor,” as gusts of wind bore the sound of tolling church bells while Benedict shook hands warmly with state and church dignitaries, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski, Cardinal Primate Jozef Glemp and Archbishop of Krakow Stanislaw Dziwisz.
"I am happy to be here, among you, on the soil of the Polish republic," he said. "I so wanted to visit the country of my beloved predecessor, the servant of God John Paul II, and to be here, among his country people."
President Kaczynski addressed words of reconciliation saying that "rovidence has deemed that a German has succeeded a Pole on the throne of Saint Peter," he said. "Our two peoples, who are very close, have often been separated by history. Today we feel that true reconciliation can only be achieved on a spiritual dimension."
After the official welcome, Benedict set off in a motorcade, bound for St. John's Cathedral in the center of Warsaw, to meet with members of the clergy. Thousands of Poles lined the streets of the capital to welcome the pope. Some cried, in Polish, "Long live the Pope," others held aloft the yellow and white flag of the Vatican, letting it flutter in the brisk spring breeze.
The papal motorcade drove past the monument to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, where Poland's Nazi occupiers isolated the capital's thriving pre-war Jewish community.
The pope also passed in front of a monument to Poles deported and killed in the former Soviet Union, and one to the tragic 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Germans.
The first day of the papal visit was to be devoted mainly to meetings with Polish officials and members of the clergy. Tomorrow, Benedict XVI will lead a huge open-air mass in Warsaw's central Pilsudski Square, which is expected to draw around one million faithful.
In his speech at the airport, Benedict spoke in Italian about the rest of his itinerary after Warsaw, which will take him south to key sites in the life and papacy of John Paul II, culminating Sunday at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
"I hope to meet there survivors, the victims of Nazi terror, from the many nations which suffered this tragic oppression," Benedict said. "We will pray together that the wounds of the past century are healed by the medicine of God, who calls on us to forgive each other and offers us the mystery of the Divine Mercy."
On the flight to Poland, Benedict had told reporters that he was going to Auschwitz "first and foremost as a Catholic," not as a German. "It is very important to understand that we are Catholics and Catholicism embraces all nationalities," he said.