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Pilgrims Amass in Poland to Laud John Paul II

From distant Canada to small Polish towns, pilgrims were arriving Saturday in places linked to Pope John Paul II for concerts and prayers held on the eve of him being declared a saint.

Thousands were crowding into the narrow downtown streets of Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla served as priest and bishop for more than 30 years before being chosen pope and taking the name of John Paul II. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church leader from a country ruled by communists.

The crowd was gathering to watch a multimedia show that was to be screened on the wall of the Palace of Krakow Bishops, where Wojtyla resided in the 1960s and 70s. The screenings were to recall his joking exchanges with thousands gathered in the street below, as he stood in an open window, now known as the “papal window.”

Photo of Pope John Paul II displayed on a downtown street in Warsaw, Poland on the eve of the Vatican ceremony in which the much-loved pontiff is to be declared a saint. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

Giant screens were put up in Krakow, Wadowice and other cities for the crowd to watch live on Sunday the unprecedented Vatican ceremony in which Pope Francis, aided by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, will declare as saint two 20th century popes: John Paul and John XXIII.

“This is a great event for us Poles, because our countryman will be honored before the entire world,” said Jadwiga Grzelak, who travelled five hours with a parish group from Lututow, in central Poland, for the observances.

Pilgrims were also arriving in John Paul’s southern hometown of Wadowice, now festively decorated in white-and-red national flags and in papal colors of yellow and white, and with the much-loved pontiff’s portraits in some windows.

Two stages have been put up in the square in front of the house where Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, and in front of the neighboring basilica, where he was baptized. Concerts were planned Sunday in thanks for the elevation of one of the greatest figures in Poland ever.

“I think sometimes Poland does not get that much recognition, so everything about Pope John Paul is important for this country,” said Sara Szpila of Vancouver, Canada.

John Paul remains special to his countrymen for having inspired the ouster of communism from Poland, for his support for the Solidarity freedom movement that peacefully achieved that in 1989, and for the pontiff’s teaching centered on human rights and dignity.

His contribution to abolishing the Iron Curtain in Europe is still appreciated by those in power at the time.

Germany’s chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, said in an open letter published Saturday by the Bild daily that the pope played “a very considerable part in bringing down the Berlin Wall and making the peaceful end of Germany and Europe’s division possible.”

“He was a pontifex in the true sense of the word: he was a bridge builder,” Kohl added.

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