GDANSK, Poland -- Welcomed as Poland's favorite son, Pope John Paul II returned to his homeland Saturday and paid tribute to the Baltic port city of Gdansk, where the "cry of conscience" against communist rule rang out.
Tens of thousands of Poles lined streets and highways to get a glimpse of the frail, 79-year-old pope at the start of his 13-day tour of the country. Amid the Polish and Vatican flags and paper hearts tacked on trees were the red and white banners of Solidarity, the trade union that rose from the Gdansk shipyards to challenge the communist regime.John Paul's first visit to Poland as pope 20 years ago helped spark the creation of Solidarity, the first free labor union in what was then the Soviet bloc. Formed a year after the visit, Solidarity spread into a nationwide movement that toppled communist rule in 1989.
"It was precisely in Gdansk that a new Poland was born, which gives us so much and of which we are so proud," the pope said upon arriving from Rome. The "cry of conscience roused from slumber rung out with such force as to make room for the yearned-for freedom."
John Paul walked slowly off his Alitalia chartered plane and onto the tarmac, using a cane for support. But his voice was strong and he was clearly pleased to be back in Poland after a two-year absence.
The trip, which includes 20 cities, has been designed to mark major events in Polish history and to give a sense of unity to a country feeling pain from the transition to a free-market economy.
There's also a nostalgic side, with stops in Wadowice, his birthplace, and Krakow, where he served as priest, archbishop and cardinal before his election as pope in 1978.
President Aleksander Kwasniewski welcomed John Paul as "the greatest moral authority of our time." Despite living in Rome for 20 years, the pope "does not cease to feel a son of this land, and anything that concerns it is never alien to him."
That Poland has changed immensely during his pontificate was clear on John Paul's drive from the airport. The highway was dotted with Western fast food chains and businesses.
John Paul expressed his "joy" at the "great progress on the path of economic development" in Poland over the past decade. Yet he also made special mention of the poor.
Church officials say John Paul is concerned about increasing divisions in Polish society. Many people, especially in rural areas, are disappointed that democracy and market reforms have failed to end their poverty. The government also faces protests by those who say they are underpaid or oppose the restructuring that will mean tens of thousands of layoffs.
At his initial Mass, held before 700,000 faithful at a dusty racetrack, John Paul told Poles that the sense of togetherness that "opened the doors of freedom" must now be shown toward those in danger of being left behind.