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Homecoming to a changed land

Pope John Paul II returned to his homeland on Saturday for the first time since the collapse of the communist government he had challenged for a decade. Poles welcome the pope as a moral authority, but unquestioning adulation here vanished with communism in 1989, and a new critical spirit challenges the Roman Catholic Church he heads.

At a windy airport in the northern city of Koszalin _ where the pope chose to begin his nine-day pilgrimage through his homeland _ the reception was muted in comparison to the cheering throngs who greeted him on three previous visits.

On a ceremonial carpet _ the only touch of red, the color of communism _ stood former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, once a "non-person" with whom the pope had to meet in semi-secret. Walesa is now the president of the Polish republic and the head of the welcoming committee.

Purple-sashed bishops of a once-persecuted church stood shoulder-to-shoulder with state authorities over whom they exercise increasing power.

And the pope, once welcomed warily by state authorities as an unavoidable antagonist, was this time hailed heartily as a savior.

"You were and are the symbol of the spirit of this nation, of a nation that never accepted a system of enslavement," Walesa said. "Today, we no longer need to fight. We are learning to work for a free homeland.

That is why we still wish to draw benefit from your wisdom, from the wisdom of the church that has given so much to Poland.

"Without your work and prayer . . . there would be no Solidarity," said Walesa, whose first foreign trip earlier this year as a head of state was to the Vatican. "There would have been no Polish August and no victory of freedom."

John Paul's first pilgrimage here in 1979 is largely credited with inspiring the formation of the Solidarity labor movement in August 1980. It was Solidarity's nine-year struggle that finally brought down the the Communist regime in Poland and set off a chain reaction throughout Eastern Europe.

On Saturday, broad smiles reflected the relaxed mood of an occasion organized "without midnight conversations or upsetting telephone calls from the Politburo," episcopal spokesman Bishop Aloysius Orszulik said.

In the pope's view, though, the blessings of freedom are not unmixed. The old, unified "church of silence," which stood up to communism but at least overtly acquiesced to Rome, is now riven by dissent.

Poles, more than 90 percent of them professing Roman Catholicism, particularly reject the church's conservative sexual morality, of which John Paul is the most visible upholder. A survey published last week by the state-run television network's polling organization showed 81 percent of respondents opposing the church on contraception, 71 percent on abortion, 63 percent on divorce and 61 percent on extramarital sex.

The pope, who has publicly supported a new anti-abortion bill meting out jail terms for abortion, is expected to address the issue while here.

The withdrawal of some contraceptives from the market and the tightening of divorce rules has prompted concern that the church is codifying its own morality into state law and building an ideological monopoly. Significantly, 74 percent of those polled last week considered the church's political role too great, and 57 percent said it should have no political role.

On the first blustery day of his fourth pilgrimage to Poland, when the west winds perhaps symbolically blew off his papal cap, the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla made clear his aim of teaching his compatriots the duties of Catholic citizenship.

"In the center of the transformation of sociopolitical and socioeconomic systems," he said on arrival, "is every human being, a subject codetermining the common good for the sake of the objective laws of community life."

Walesa greeted John Paul as the "pope of the duties of the Christian and the citizen." Walesa said the church was "once more fulfilling her educational role in public life."

Many Poles still subscribe to this view. But now that unity against a common enemy no longer binds them, some contest what amounts to a state religion.

For the first time in four papal pilgrimages, Polish reporters last week openly probed the costs of the visit to Poland's battered economy. In somewhat unclear comments, Krzysztof Jan Zabinski, head of the Cabinet office, said that about $25-million from the state budget reserve would not suffice to cover original estimates more than four times that sum.