WARSAW, Poland – Poland welcomed Pope Benedict XVI with cheers and fluttering yellow and white Vatican flags as the German-born pontiff started a four-day visit aimed at honoring predecessor John Paul II and healing wounds from World War II.
Benedict beamed broadly and waved as he descended from the plane, and managed to keep his skullcap from flying off in a brisk breeze — unlike his arrival on his first foreign trip in Germany last year.
The visit will touch on some of the most painful memories of Europe's past, including a visit by the pope to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, mostly Jews.
"There I hope especially to meet the survivors of Nazi terror who come from different countries, all of whom suffered under that tragic tyranny," he said in his speech at the airport.
"Together we will pray that the wounds of the past century will heal, thanks to the remedy that God in his mercy has prescribed for us by calling us to forgive each other."
Asked by journalists on the plane how he felt about visiting Auschwitz as a German, Benedict said, "I am above all a Catholic. I must say that this is the most important point."
The crowd at the airport cheered his attempts at Polish, and a choir sang "The Barge," John Paul's favorite song — one sign of how the late pope remains a strong presence in Poland more than a year after his death.
Benedict rode into town and made a ceremonial entry to choral singing and prolonged, loud applause at the soaring Cathedral of John the Baptist for a meeting with Polish clergy. The sometimes-shy Benedict looked wide-eyed and seemed touched and a bit startled by the reception.
Some of the frenzied anticipation that characterized the visits of Poland's native son, when thousands jammed the streets before dawn, was lacking, with fewer people turning out early to hold yellow and white Vatican flags and watch as the pope passed by in his glass-enclosed popemobile. It was still a strong welcome by the standard of generally secular European Union countries, however.
Benedict drew a roar of applause at the airport as he launched into his welcoming speech — in Polish, later switching to Italian.
"I have very much wanted to make this visit to the native land people of my beloved predecessor, the servant of God, John Paul II," Benedict said. "I have come to follow in the footsteps of his life."
In a meeting with Catholic clergy, Benedict noted that John Paul often exhorted the faithful to ask pardon for sins by Catholics through the centuries.
Benedict endorsed this, but added a note of caution, saying "we must guard against the arrogant claim of setting ourselves up to judge earlier generations who lived in different times and in different circumstances."
"Humble sincerity is needed in order not to deny the sins of the past, and at the same time not to indulge in facile accusations in absence of real evidence, or without regard for the different preconceptions of the time."
The remarks won applause from the audience. Benedict faced difficult situations himself, and described in his memoirs being enrolled in the Hitler Youth against his will, then risking execution by deserting the army as a draftee days before the war ended.
Benedict will make remarks in Italian or Polish, presumably out of regard for the feelings of the wartime generation in Poland, which suffered enormously at the hands of the Nazi invaders.
Poles like Benedict's emphasis on continuing John Paul's legacy, and don't seem to mind that he is German despite the memory of the war — which left Warsaw in ruins. But many still miss John Paul.
"It's not the same as with our pope," said 75-year-old Wanda Nowicka, who was waiting on a downtown street to watch Benedict pass by on his way to his first stop at Warsaw's Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Crowds were enthusiastic but thinner than those that were always on hand to greet John Paul II, only one-row deep along his route through the city at some places and even more sparse elsewhere.
Jadwiga Gasiar, 69, stood holding a papal flag. "I don't have the same feelings as I used to when John Paul was coming," she said. "This is a different feeling now. I came to welcome him warmly but it's not the same. And it does not matter that he is a German."
High points on Benedict's schedule will include a Mass on Friday in central Warsaw where John Paul inspired the Solidarity movement with a landmark appearance in 1979 during communist rule. Then he heads for the late pope's hometown of Wadowice, and for Krakow, where John Paul served as archbishop.
On Sunday, Benedict visits Auschwitz-Birkenau, a visit fraught with significance for Catholic-Jewish relations, a favorite cause of John Paul, who also visited Auschwitz on his 1979 trip to Poland.
Shortly after his election last year, Benedict said he saw a "providential design" in the fact that a Polish pope was 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.