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Polish Catholics know there will never be another like 'our pope'

KRAKOW, Poland -- Huddled under a sea of umbrellas at a rain-soaked Mass last week, Poland's Catholic faithful got a glimpse of the future.

In the papal throne sat Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, filling in for ailing Pope John Paul II. When it came time for the papal homily, though, Krakow's archbishop read the words 1 million people gathered to hear because Sodano, an Italian, lacked a sufficient command of Polish.No one seemed to mind too much, but the moment showed exactly how much this nation that ties its heritage to its Roman Catholic faith will lose when history's only Polish pope is gone.

The flu that forced John Paul to miss the Mass in his former diocese reinforced awareness of his frailty at 79, stooped and shaking from what is suspected to be Parkinson's disease.

His successor, and Sodano is considered a candidate, will come from another country, ending the unique status that Poles embraced since the surprising ascension of former Krakow Archbishop Karol Wojtyla in 1978.

No longer will the pope intuitively know the unique troubles and aspirations of a nation emerging from decades of oppression by the Nazis and Soviet-dominated communists. A non-Polish pope certainly won't visit as much as John Paul's eight trips or enjoy the same intimacy, such as the playful banter at almost every public event.

Poles know it, they accept it, but they don't like it.

"Let's hope it will happen as late as possible. We are praying for that," offered Maria Sciegienko, a retired pharmacist sitting with her husband before a huge papal Mass last Sunday in central Warsaw.

One of history's best-loved popes, certainly its most traveled one, John Paul is considered by Poles to be sent by God to help them regain their freedom -- both political and spiritual.

His papacy brought Poles the spiritual honor of a native son leading the planet's 1 billion Catholics.

Less than a year after his election, John Paul's first pilgrimage home showed Poles their unity through faith by drawing millions into the streets, an unheard of public rebuff of suffocating communist control. The newly realized strength helped spark the birth a year later of the Solidarity movement, which eventually toppled communism in 1989.

"There was a great outburst of euphoria at the end. Some were clapping their hands. Some were crying," Sciegienko recalled of a Mass at the same spot 20 years earlier. "It was a very special time."

So pervasive was his role in the political and social revolution of the ensuing years that John Paul became the only force capable of uniting deeply divided factions rooted in the past.

The intense love Poles have for the pope shows in the faces that strain for even the briefest look as his motorcade passes. More telling are the subtle possessives that creep into discussion.

"Our pope will always be remembered for what he has done," insisted Pawel Maciejewski, a 26-year-old geology student who waited for hours for a spot up front at the opening Mass of the pilgrimage in Gdansk.