In his opening remarks to dignitaries, clergy and faithful at the Warsaw airport Thursday and later at the city's main cathedral there was no avoiding the sounds of the changing of the guard since John Paul died nearly 14 months ago. A skilled linguist like his predecessor, Benedict opened and closed his speeches in Polish, but (as planned) spoke almost exclusively in Italian, the official Vatican tongue, with an aide translating into the local language. There could be no more jarring reality for this passionately Catholic country that had grown used to seeing one of their own in the seat of Peter, and relied on John Paul's unique leadership to help end Communist rule and chart a course for Poland's future.
Yet the Catholic Church is a 2,000 year institution, where even the passing of national hero-pope does not translate into a fizzling of faith. Poland in fact remains a bastion of traditional Catholicism in an increasingly secular Europe. Some 96% the population call themselves Roman Catholic, while 57% attend mass every Sunday. "Stand firm in your faith," Benedict told worshipers is the motto for the four-day trip. "I have very much wanted to make this visit to the native land and people of my beloved predecessor, the servant of God John Paul II," the Pope said. "I have come to follow in the footsteps of his life."
Crowds, in some places five people deep, lined the entire seven-mile route from the airport to the cathedral late Thursday morning. Benedict will visit John Paul's hometown of Wadowice on Saturday, before an open-air mass on Sunday in Krakow, where John Paul served as archbishop, with one million faithful expected to attend. Benedict will close his trip with a solemn visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the occupying Nazi regime killed some 1.5 million people, most of them Jews. It is a trip that John Paul made on his first return to Poland as Pope in 1979, an early sign of a papacy committed to healing the deep wounds between Catholicism and Judaism. There will be added significance in the arrival at Auschwitz of a German-born pope who served briefly in the Hitler Youth during World War II, when membership in the Nazi paramilitary organisation was compulsory.
Benedict, who previously made the trip as a Cardinal, was asked by journalists on the plane how he felt about visiting Auschwitz "as a German." The Pope responded: "I am above all a Catholic. I must say that this is the most important point." Nationalities, he said, can help fulfill the "togetherness of the communion of the Catholic Church." After his election last April, Benedict said he saw a "providential design" in a Polish pope being succeeded by a German one. "Both popes in their youth both on different sides and in different situations were forced to experience the barbarity of the Second World War," Benedict said.
On his first foreign trip last August, a similarly busy four-day visit to Cologne for World Youth Day, Benedict was still getting used to his papal robes. Some of the faithful, with the memory of John Paul's passing fresh in their minds, were likewise still taking measure of their new leader's subtler persona. Now, more than a year into his papacy, there is a sense that this longtime behind-the-scenes Vatican figure has found his comfort zone under the public spotlight. This time he wasn't even scared off, as he was last August, when photographers and cameramen rushed to the front of the papal plane to catch a glance of the Pope just before takeoff. He even talked about the weather: "It doesn't have to be warm, but we just hope it doesn't rain!" he told reporters.
He is taking command of the new job behind the cameras as well. Benedict made a key personnel shift last week in Rome, scaling back the role of a John Paul favorite, powerful Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who was moved from the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to the Archdiocese of Naples. Cardinal Ivan Dias, the longtime archbishop of Bombay known to be respected by the new Pope, was brought in to take Sepe's old job.
Also last week, Benedict approved a careful censure of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, accused of sexually abusing minors: the 86-year-old Father Marcial Maciel Degollado will have to give up his public ministry, but no more action will be taken against him because of his age and poor health.
There is a sense among Vatican insiders that these two recent decisions along with a looming decision to replace Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano is a sign that Benedict is getting a sure handle on the running of the massive church hiearchy. Still, the Pope knows he can't simply sit behind his desk in Rome. This trip to Poland, which will be followed this year by stops in Spain, Germany and Turkey, will at once pay proper homage to John Paul and show that there is a new man very much in charge.