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Pope will find a changed Poland

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Pope John Paul II, arriving today for a fourth papal pilgrimage to his homeland, will find a very different Poland from the one he encountered on his last visit in 1987. Back then, the Communists were still in power, the trade union Solidarity was illegal, the shops were empty and the visit of the Polish pope was an event of brightness and excitement in a long, bleak period of political and economic gloom.

Back then, the pontiff teasingly milked every ounce of drama out of his use of the word "solidarity," using it initially with a lower-case "s" in reference to "Christian solidarity" and finally, near the end of his trip, in a dramatic outdoor Mass in Gdansk, taking up the proper name of Solidarity, the union and the political movement that it represented.

The Mass ended with an overtly political march by Solidarity activists and a head-bashing clash with the dreaded Zomo riot police.

Now the Zomo are disbanded. The shops of Warsaw and Gdansk and other cities are filled with bright (and expensive) consumer goods. A flashy minority of newly affluent Poles zoom through the streets in their slick new BMWs and Mercedes roadsters.

At the same time, the Roman Catholic church, which has claimed as adherents about 93 percent of the population, has been taking its lumps, some say.

A recent survey indicated that respect for the church as a national institution had dropped to second place, behind the army. A government poll this week showed that more than half of Poles think the church's role in public affairs is too great, and more than 60 percent want to see a guarantee of church-state separation written into the constitution. Some say an anti-church backlash has begun.

Its critics said the church has begun to meddle too much in the schools, the bedroom and politics and has been acting as though it were calling in its markers for its years of serving as a refuge for the political opposition throughout the years of totalitarian rule.

Much of this disquiet over the church's activities in Poland does not necessarily rub off on Pope John Paul II, who remains the most respected world figure for Poles. Millions were expected to turn out to see him on the nine-day, 12-city trip, but perhaps fewer millions than have turned out on previous journeys.