Pope Visits Poland, Says Hopes John Paul II Will Be Made a Saint 'In the Near Future'

Pope Benedict XVI, making sentimental stops in his predecessor's homeland, brought joy to Poles by announcing that he hopes John Paul II will be made a saint "in the near future." But the presence of a boyhood friend of John Paul touched another memory — the painful history of Poland's Jews.

His visit Saturday to John Paul's birthplace of Wadowice, once home to a flourishing Jewish community, came a day before the German pope visited the Auschwitz death camp.

The stop to the infamous death camp was not originally planned, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Saturday. "But the pope said 'I want to go, I have to go,"' Navarro-Valls said.

Benedict, referring to John Paul as "my great predecessor, toured the house where John Paul lived as a child and the church where he served as an altar boy. In the packed square outside the Immaculate Conception Basilica sat Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who has lived in Rome for decades and is one of the last of John Paul's old cronies still living.

"Pope Benedict knows what he's doing, and John Paul II also knew what he was doing when he named Cardinal Ratzinger, today's Benedict," Kluger told The Associated Press. "However, the fact that Benedict is German has no meaning here. His nationality plays no role."

During a 1999 visit, John Paul reminisced about his Jewish landlord — the family recently sold the house to a Polish businessman — and lamented that so many Jews had been killed during the Nazi occupation, taken to the Auschwitz camp only some 30 kilometers, or about 20 miles, from Wadowice.

"It's good that the pope will go there," Kruger said. "The visit to Auschwitz is a question of responsibility."

Nearly 1.5 million people, most Jews, were killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. It will be Benedict's third visit to the death camp, including accompanying John Paul in 1979, but his first as pope.

Benedict, who has acknowledged that he was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a teenager, and later deserted from the German army in the waning days of World War II, will say a prayer in German — his only public use of his native tongue during his Polish pilgrimage.

While John Paul and Benedict have played key roles in improving Catholic-Jewish relations, some in Poland's small Jewish community expressed disappointment that Benedict did not stop as he drove in from Warsaw's airport to bless 30 elderly Catholic Poles honored by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for saving Jewish lives.

The group had gathered at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument, together with the Israeli ambassador. The pope clasped his hands and nodded to the group, but the car kept moving.

"He should at least have gotten out of his popemobile and taken those few steps," said Anna Kornecka, who saved two Jews in a ghetto in Vilnius, which was then part of Poland.

Jerzy Kozminski, honored for saving 26 Jews, said that "as a German and pope, Benedict could have done something. At Auschwitz he will have to make some gesture because the whole world will be watching."

Benedict's encouraging remark on sainthood — an addition to his prepared text, delivered with a grin — got a roar of applause from the 15,000 people gathered at a shrine outside Krakow.

Honoring John Paul is a major theme of Benedict's four-day trip to Poland, where the cause of John Paul's sainthood is extremely popular. Some were even hoping Benedict might make the official announcement during the trip.

Benedict, standing next to John Paul's former secretary, Krakow's Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, outdoors at the Kalwaria Zebrzydowska shrine, said: "Your Cardinal Stanislaw expresses the hope, as do I, that in the near future we will be able to enjoy the beatification and canonization of John Paul II."

A large banner reading "Wadowice Prays For Sainthood Immediately, John Paul II the Great" in Italian and Polish hung in the packed square in front of the church where John Paul was baptized, and Benedict said he shared their cause.

"I wished to stop precisely here, in the place where his faith began and matured, to pray together with all of you that he may soon be elevated to the glory of the altars," Benedict told about 30,000 people in the town square.

After praying in the ornate church, Benedict walked down a cobblestone street to the house on Koscielna Street where John Paul spent his boyhood, now a museum devoted to John Paul. There he was greeted by the nuns who run the museum, and he walked through the rooms where photographs document the boyhood of Karol Wojtyla, the future pope.

Shortly after becoming pope, Benedict waived the five-year waiting period after a person's death to begin a case for possible sainthood for John Paul. Miracles are needed for both beatification and canonization, and the case of a French nun whose inexplicable recovery from Parkinson's disease is being investigated by Catholic Church officials as a possible miracle.

"The Holy Father is doing everything to make John Paul II a saint and we owe him deep gratitude for that," said Halina Bucka, 48, a kindergarten teacher from Wadowice who joined the crowd. "I think that the visit in Wadowice will strengthen him on that path and that very soon John Paul II will be officially announced a saint."