VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II, Poland's favorite son, returns to his homeland Friday, making a nostalgic four-day visit in what he calls the "twilight years" of his papacy.
The ailing 82-year-old pope surprised skeptics with his relative vigor during an 11-day tour of Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, although he weakened as the trip went on.
John Paul has been resting at his vacation palace outside Rome since returning from the trip Aug. 2, preparing for his ninth visit to Poland since he assumed the papacy nearly 24 years ago.
As he battles the ravaging symptoms of Parkinson's disease and knee and hip ailments, the Vatican has again denied persistent rumors that John Paul would remain in Poland, retiring from the papacy and moving into a monastery.
And while talk continues that the Polish trip -- the 98th foreign tour for the most traveled pope in history -- may be his last, the Vatican points to possible trips next year to the Philippines and Croatia, although there is no formal confirmation they will be scheduled and no more travel is planned this year.
One thing is sure: Many Poles fear this may be John Paul's last trip home, the closing of a Polish chapter in Vatican history.
So more than 4 million people are expected to greet the pope during his homecoming, including 2 million turning out in a meadow on the outskirts of Krakow for an open-air Mass on Sunday, the biggest public event of the trip. The last time the pope visited Poland was in 1999.
Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi told Vatican Radio this week that some aspects of the trip can be seen as a "plunge into the past."
"Yet it is a new trip, with new contents and new accents," Zanussi said.
Organizers have arranged visits to places John Paul lived in Krakow, some linked to his youth and others to his role as an influential cleric in communist Poland during the Cold War -- including his residence when fellow cardinals of the Church elected him as the first Polish pope in history on Oct. 16, 1978.
In the most personal moments of the trip, he will stop at his family's tombs in Krakow's Rakowicki cemetery and pray in the imposing Wawel Cathedral, burial place of Poland's kings. Some say John Paul may choose to be buried there himself. Popes leave such instructions in their testaments, opened only after their deaths.
The election of the Polish pope and John Paul's support for Solidarity, the first free trade union in the Soviet bloc that grew out of his first return home in 1979, proved the undoing of the Soviet grip over eastern Europe, according to protagonists of the era, such as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
One particular adversary was Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader, who outlawed the church-backed Solidarity in 1981. John Paul met with him during a visit to Poland in 1983, telling the general he would be judged by history.
Looking back, "I have to admit that the pope was right about a lot of things," Jaruzelski said in an interview published Wednesday in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Jaruzelski, 78, is currently standing trial on charges he issued orders for soldiers to fire at shipyard workers protesting food-price increases on Dec. 17, 1970, when he was defense minister.
In recent trips, Vatican officials have sought to cope with the pope's ailments, pushing him around on carts and using a lift for him to embark and disembark from planes, although at times he has insisted on walking.
Asked by Vatican Radio how Poles would react to seeing John Paul's frail condition, in marked contrast to the rugged 58-year-old man who returned as pope for the first time in 1979, the film director Zanussi said he expected they would see it as "absolutely normal."
"Maybe, a part of the West has lost the vision of the old man, the elderly," he said, insisting that was not the case in Poland.