WARSAW, Poland (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Poland to an enthusiastic welcome Thursday as he began a four-day visit intended to honor predecessor John Paul II and further German-Polish healing from the wounds of World War II.
Benedict beamed broadly and waved as he descended from the plane at Warsaw's international airport, and managed to keep his skullcap from flying off in a brisk breeze — unlike his arrival on his first foreign trip to Germany last year.
The crowd cheered his attempts at Polish, and a choir sang "The Barge," John Paul's favorite song — just one sign of how the late pope remains a strong presence in Poland more than a year after his death.
The visit will touch on some of the most painful memories of Europe's past, including a visit by the pope — enrolled unwillingly in the Hitler Youth and later a German army draftee — to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, mostly Jews.
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 pope rode into town and was greeted with 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.
However, some of the frenzied anticipation that characterized native son John Paul's visits, 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 Benedict passed by in his popemobile.
Benedict tried some Polish with his formal hello to the honor guard: "Greetings, soldiers," but stumbled a bit over the words. He drew a roar of applause, however, 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 and people of my beloved predecessor, the servant of God John Paul II," Benedict said in remarks prepared for his arrival. "I have come to follow in the footsteps of his life."
Benedict spoke in both languages presumably out of regard for the wartime generation in Poland, which suffered enormously at the hands of the Nazi invaders.
Organizers dropped initial plans for Benedict to ride through the Auschwitz gate under the infamous words "Arbeit Macht Frei" — "Work Sets You Free" — when it was recalled that Nazi soldiers drove through the gate while inmates walked. He will now arrive on foot.
"I expect like his predecessor he will remind Christians of the unique debt that Christianity owes to its Jewish parent," said George Weigel, an American biographer of John Paul.
The pontiff's schedule included 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.
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. Catholic-Jewish relations were a favorite cause of John Paul, who also visited Auschwitz on his 1979 trip to Poland. 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. "Our pope said this is my country. He knew what our problems were, he understood them, he cared."
"I was in Warsaw during World War II and the Warsaw Uprising, you can't imagine what we suffered from the Germans," she added. "But when I think of Benedict, this does not matter, I don't think of him as German.
The 1944 uprising — by Polish guerrillas against the occupying Germans — was met with terrible retaliation by Adolf Hitler that left the capital a heap of rubble.
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.
Associated Press writers Victor L. Simpson in Rome and Jan Sliva in Warsaw contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.