WARSAW, Poland – About 100,000 Poles mourned John Paul II (search) on Sunday at the Warsaw square where the Polish-born pope celebrated a landmark Mass that inspired opponents of the communist regime 26 years ago.
In John Paul's hometown of Wadowice (search) in the south, a large bust of the pope was brought from the town hall and placed in front of St. Mary's Basilica, where he was baptized. It is to remain there until a statue of John Paul replaces it.
Poles returned Sunday to the spot as many as 1 million people turned out in 1979 to hear newly elected John Paul II's call to "renew the face of the Earth" — credited by many with inspiring the Solidarity trade union movement led by Lech Walesa (search) that toppled Communism.
"From the symbolic place where John Paul II lit the flame of freedom, dignity and solidarity, Warsaw is praying for mercy for the Holy Father," Bishop Piotr Jarecki told the crowd gathered for the special service.
People were "praying that, in each of us, in our town in Poland, in Europe and the modern world, we can see the fruits of the life and mission of John Paul II to the end," Jarecki said from a platform in Pilsudski Square, formerly Victory Square.
Police officials put the crowd at around 100,000. The number was difficult to estimate because the throng spilled over into surrounding streets.
Churches elsewhere overflowed with crowds, with several thousand people jammed into a Mass at the St. Anne's Cathedral in Warsaw's Old Town. Thousands more stood outside and watched the service on a large television screen.
Red-and-white Polish flags with mourning bands of black cloth attached flew around the city.
"It's a great loss for Poland," said Jozef Romanzuk, 40, a businessman standing in front of St. Anne's. "The pope was a symbol of the new Poland. Now, we are beginning a new history, in which we Poles are left alone."
Jaroslaw Sikorski, 24, said, "We have been left orphans. That means we must be strong. And the word of John Paul II gives us this strength."
Barbara Zielinska, a government worker, recalled the pontiff's words: "The pope said, 'Don't be afraid,' and I'm not. He brought Poles closer to God, fulfilled his mission and now he has left."
In Krakow, where John Paul served as archbishop, hundreds laid flowers, placed candles and stood in silent contemplation under the window, where John Paul used to appear to talk to people during his visits to Poland as pope.
Outside Krakow, thousands stood in a meadow an open-air Mass at Lagiewniki, where the pope consecrated a large, modern concrete-and-glass church during his last visit to his homeland on Aug. 17, 2002.
During World War II, the young Karol Wojtyla used to pray at a chapel in an adjacent convent on his way to forced labor under Nazis at the nearby Solvay salt quarry.
"I was born in 1982 and to me, the pope is a Pole," said Ann Pszczol, a 23-year-old student of Slavic languages at Krakow's Jagiellonian University who came to the service.
"I cannot imagine now how I will accept a new pope. I have a sense of great loss and emptiness now."