KRAKOW, Poland – An ailing and aging John Paul II bid a tearful farewell to his homeland, asking Poles for prayers to help him continue his papal mission and saying he hoped to return.
The four-day visit to the Krakow region was an emotional journey to the places that shaped the 82-year-old pontiff's faith.
"I'm sorry to be leaving," the pope said as he prepared to board the flight back to Rome on Monday. The people responded: "Stay with us" and "Long live the pope."
Poland's native son left his countrymen with the hope he would return.
"Many have wished to meet me, although not all were able to do so," the pope said. "Maybe next time."
Whether age and infirmity will allow the pope to return to Poland remained an open question — and many in the crowd had tears in their eyes during the departure ceremony.
But they cheered as the pope slowly walked up the stairs to the plane, instead of using a lift.
"I'm very sad because he has to leave. I'd like him to stay longer, to live in Krakow instead of Rome, because he would be happier here," said Agnieszka Gorecka, a 25-year-old student. "But I understand he has a mission to complete."
Loud cheers erupted again when the papal plane circled the airport twice, tilting its wings in a final farewell. On the way, the pope got a final glimpse of his native Wadowice and his favorite ski resort, Zakopane, before returning to Rome.
Though beset by symptoms of Parkinson's and ailments in his knees and hips that leave him stooped and limited his itinerary in the Krakow region, aides noted the joy the visit brought the 82-year-old pontiff.
"In my opinion, the pope will return to Poland," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
"He's in a place that is very dear to him. He has personal links to this place, and his prayer here is very personal and very intense."
Despite his frailties, the pope brushed aside any notion he might step down. Underlining his commitment to papacy, he prayed for strength to continue his mission during a Mass at a sanctuary where he used to pray with his father.
"Obtain also for me strength in body and spirit that I may carry out to the end the mission given to me by the risen Lord," the pope said.
John Paul also renewed a request for prayers "when I am alive and after I die," referring for the second time during the trip to his own mortality.
The emotional visit to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska sanctuary, where he had prayed and sought inspiration as a boy, priest and bishop, was the last official stop on the papal itinerary.
During the visit, the pope's ninth to Poland, he held Mass for an unprecedented 2 million Polish faithful, consecrated a new basilica at a sanctuary where he prayed under Nazi occupation and prayed in the cathedral where he said his first Mass as a priest.
He also fulfilled his role as Poland's moral compass, offering Poles encouragement as they face tough economic measures — at a time of 18 percent unemployment and growing poverty — to help prepare the country to join the European Union in 2004.
"I embrace the whole of my beloved homeland," he said. "I rejoice in its successes, in its positive aspirations and in its courageous undertakings."
He acknowledged "the cost of the changes that weigh upon the neediest and the weakest, on the unemployed, the homeless," but spurred Poles on, reiterating his support for their nation's membership in the European Union.
"I do hope that by cherishing those values the Polish nation, which has belonged to Europe for centuries, will find its due place in the structures of the European Union."