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20 years later, pope's prayers have been answered in Poland

WARSAW, Poland -- During his triumphant first trip home as pope in 1979, John Paul II prayed in Warsaw for the Holy Spirit to change Poland. Twenty years later, as he prepares for his eighth pilgrimage to his native soil, his prayers have been answered.

The former Soviet bloc ally now belongs to NATO, and its communist economy, once riven by food shortages, has become a free market with abundant goods. The totalitarian state of the past is a democracy.For this devoutly Roman Catholic country, the papal visit, which begins Saturday, means much more than pomp and pageantry. John Paul holds a revered status as the most famous and influential Pole in history and as the catalyst for the defeat of communism in his homeland.

Poles have always looked to him for guidance, whether in the struggle against communism or trying to understand the post-communist reality of unemployment and lingering poverty. Their search may be even more pronounced this time, perhaps the last trip home for the 79-year-old, visibly weakened pontiff.

Bishop Jan Chrapek, who is supervising preparations for the papal visit, said more than 5 million invitations have been issued to religious ceremonies and he expects millions more to show up.

"I see it as an expression of people's longing for being together and for celebrating together, as well as for clear directives about how to find yourself in the magnitude of problems today," Chrapek said.

The world's first Polish-born pope clearly has shaped his nation's fate. His 1979, 1983 and 1987 pilgrimages united Poles, then nurtured the Solidarity movement that eventually toppled communism in 1989.

In 1979, the enormous crowds that gathered for his first trip launched the church's anti-communist crusade. Papal words about freedom and dignity led to the birth of Solidarity a year later.

His second trip, in 1983, boosted the nation's spirits after the shock of martial law imposed by the communists two years earlier. John Paul met with Solidarity founder Lech Walesa and called for the release of imprisoned union activists. A month later, martial law was lifted.

The 1987 pilgrimage offered further support for Solidarity.

In his four visits to an independent Poland, John Paul focused on strengthening Christian values to offset Western-style materialism.