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Poland: The Pope Ends A Conciliatory Visit

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 10 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Pope John Paul II today left Poland for Rome, concluding his seventh visit as head of the Roman Catholic Church to his homeland.

During the eleven-day, marathon trip, the Pope went to 12 towns and cities, presided over numerous religious services and preached to some six-million people who attended these ceremonies. All these events were covered by nationwide television broadcasts.

This was basically a pastoral visit, with the Pope concentrating his pronouncements on religious and moral themes. There were important ecumenical aspects as well, particularly exemplified through the Pope's meetings with representatives of various Christian Protestant denominations and Jewish as well as Ukrainian religious groups.

It was also a visit of considerable political significance, both for Poland and Central Europe as a whole. The Pope met with and talked to top Polish Government officials, including President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, both of whom are former Communists. He also met with former president Lech Walesa and the leader of the pro-Catholic coalition of opposition groups, Marian Krzaklewski. But he stopped short of endorsing, however indirectly, the positions of any of them.

The Pope used the occasion to hold an important meeting with the Presidents of seven Central European nations -- the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine -- to tell them of his strong support for their full membership in European, primarily Western, institutions. "Europeans should cooperate," the pope said, adding that "no country, even the weak one, should be left outside the communities that are now coming into being." But he coupled this with a warning that the European unity is threatened by "an invisible wall of economic and social selfishness" between Europe's affluent and poor countries. The Pope appealed for elimination of that "wall."

John Paul's main message was that moral values provide the foundation to all aspects of human activity. The Pope emphasized this in his talk to the Central European Presidents, when he said that moral value derived cultural and spiritual Christian traditions provide the basis to the search for European unity, and he repeated this in several public addresses.

These moral values, the Pope said, should provide the guideposts to both public and individual conduct. This was particularly explicit in the Pope's condemnation of abortion. He urged his listeners to join the struggle between "the civilization of life and the civilization of death," he said that any culture allowing abortion amounts to "barbarism" and appealed to "put into action a great strategy of the defense of life."

The issue of abortion has during recent years become particularly acute in Poland's politics, pitting well-organized and vocal groups against each other. All these groups had expected the Pope to make his views on the issue known. Poland is facing parliamentary elections this September, and the abortion issue is certain to figure prominently in the campaign. The current left-wing Government supports liberalized abortion rules, while the right-wing opposition is vehemently critical.

In general, however, the Pope appeared to stay away from the Polish political infighting. The tone of his pronouncements was basically conciliatory and less stern than it had been in the past. Instead, he told his fellow Poles to take advantage of their new opportunities and freedoms to explore and remember their history, to mend relations with their neighbors and to move forward.

Commenting on a meeting with the Pope at the end of his visit, Prime Minister Cimoszewicz told an in promptu news conference in Cracow that he had "expressed gratitude to the Pope for the fact that there is an atmosphere of calm, which we need so much."

Fundamentalist Catholic groups, and a part of the Church hierarchy, have been relentless in their harsh criticism of the current Government. The atmosphere surrounding the Pope's visit contrasted with that.

This might have been the farewell visit for the Pope, who is in fragile health. And he took the opportunity to visit and see places that he had long loved, to cherish reminiscences of his youth and to enjoy the obvious affection that the country and its people feel for him. In many respects, the visit was a joyous occasion, a true homecoming.