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Pope's Tour of Poland Ends with Visit to Auschwitz

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Pope Benedict the XVI today winds up his four-day visit to Poland with what is likely to be its emotional highpoint: a visit to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz by a German Pope.

Throughout the trip, Benedict has paid tribute to his predecessor, Poland's favorite son, John Paul II, and his goal has been to exhort the inhabitants of Europe's most devoutly Catholic country to show the rest of the continent how to build a society based on Christian values.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Krakow.

Sylvia, today Benedict celebrated mass in Krakow, and the crowd was estimated at about 900,000 people. What was the message of his homily?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Well, Benedict basically summed up the basic theme of his trip to Poland, whose motto has been stand firm in your faith. He told the huge crowd that filled a large park in Krakow that he had come here to inhale the air of John Paul's homeland and to experience the faith of the Polish people. He said that when John Paul was elected, Poland became a special witness to faith in Jesus Christ, and he urged Poles to share with the other peoples of Europe and the world the treasure of your faith.

Now this has been the underlying theme of Benedict's papacy so far. Since his election he's often expressed his dismay over growing secularism in Europe, with many countries passing or planning to legalize same-sex marriage or civil union agreements. The Vatican has stepped up its campaigns against legislation on abortion and in vitro fertilization. And it has singled out, in particular, Spain, a Catholic country that has legalized gay marriage, as the worst offender.

Poland is seen as the opposite end of the spectrum. Benedict has made it clear that he sees this devout Catholic nation, with its new church-friendly government, as a model for the rest of the continent to build a society based on Christian values.

HANSEN: So how are the Polish people responding to Benedict's appeal?

POGGIOLI: Well, the crowds at all the Papal stops have been very warm, very respectful. They cheer the Pope often, and many had tears in their eyes. The Poles have really, truly embraced the German Pope.

And this is a very devout country, very loyal to the Catholic Church, which throughout Polish history, you know, during the times of foreign occupation, during Communism, was always identified as the defender of Polish identity and nationhood. But in recent years, as Poland has transformed itself into a Western free-market democracy, there have also been signs of growing secularism here too.

And Polish society is divided, left and right, both in politics and in religion. The new government is very church-friendly, but it's also somewhat isolationist and skeptical about being a member of the European Union. There are sectors of the Catholic Church that are making their weight felt on the government, but a majority of Poles say the church is too powerful in society.

And there's the nasty problem of anti-Semitism, which has deep roots in Poland, and is now gaining a mainstream acceptance. Just yesterday, Poland's chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, was attacked in downtown Warsaw in what police say may have been an anti-Semitic provocation.

One of the church's biggest problems is Radio Maria. It's a very influential broadcaster that's credited with securing the government victory, and whose programs include anti-Semitic commentaries. It's been severely criticized by the Vatican.

So this poses a dilemma for Benedict. Is Poland's conservative Catholic Church the one he wants as a model for the rest of Europe?

HANSEN: Later today, of course, he goes to Auschwitz, which is a potent symbol of the Holocaust. Can you tell us what's going to happen there and what the Pope is likely to say?

POGGIOLI: Well, Benedict will stop at the Wall of Death at Auschwitz, where prisoners were shot. He will meet a group of survivors. He'll then go to Birkenau, the other part of the Auschwitz compound, where Jews transported from all over Europe were sent from their trains to the gas chambers. This is considered the largest Jewish graveyard in the world. There at Birkenau he'll take part in an interfaith service with Jewish religious leaders. And he's to pray, probably in German, using his native language for the first time during this visit.

There are great expectations for what the German Pope, who served - although unwilling - in the Hitler Youth, will say. Poles are hoping to hear words that will promote Polish-German reconciliation. Most of all, Jews all over the world hope to hear the German Benedict speak clearly, at the central site of Hitler's final solution, about the Holocaust and to make a stinging condemnation of anti-Semitism, which is reasserting itself in many European countries, especially Poland.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Krakow, Poland. Sylvia, thank you very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.