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Pilgrims amass in Poland to celebrate John Paul II

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 2:33 p.m. MDT

A passerby stops in front of a photo of Pope John Paul II displayed on a downtown street in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, April 26, 2014, on the eve of the Vatican ceremony in which the much-loved pontiff is to be declared a saint.   (Alik Keplicz, Associated Press) A passerby stops in front of a photo of Pope John Paul II displayed on a downtown street in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, April 26, 2014, on the eve of the Vatican ceremony in which the much-loved pontiff is to be declared a saint. (Alik Keplicz, Associated Press)

KRAKOW, Poland — From distant Canada to small Polish towns, pilgrims were arriving Saturday in places linked to Pope John Paul II for concerts and prayers held on the eve of him being declared a saint

Thousands were crowding into the narrow downtown streets of Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla served as priest and bishop for more than 30 years before being chosen pope and taking the name of John Paul II. Surprisingly, the Catholic Church leader from a country ruled by communists.

The crowd was gathering to watch a multimedia show that was to be screened on the wall of the Palace of Krakow Bishops, where Wojtyla resided in the 1960s and 70s. The screenings were to recall his joking exchanges with thousands gathered in the street below, as he stood in an open window, now known as the "papal window."

Giant screens were put up in Krakow, Wadowice and other cities for the crowd to watch live on Sunday the unprecedented Vatican ceremony in which Pope Francis, aided by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, will declare as saint two 20th century popes: John Paul and John XXIII.

"This is a great event for us Poles, because our countryman will be honored before the entire world," said Jadwiga Grzelak, who travelled five hours with a parish group from Lututow, in central Poland, for the observances.

Paper pigeons  in papal yellow and white colors and with the image of Pope John Paul II being sold to pilgrims in the pontiff’s hometown of Wadowice, Poland, on Saturday, April 26, 2014 on the eve of  the Vatican ceremony in which the much-loved pontiff is to be declared a saint.  Krakow and nearby Wadowice are among the key places linked to John Paul in Poland that are holding observances to mark the occasion. People will be able to see the Vatican ceremony live on giant screens there, and in many other places in Poland. (Czarek Sokolowski, Associated Press) Paper pigeons in papal yellow and white colors and with the image of Pope John Paul II being sold to pilgrims in the pontiff’s hometown of Wadowice, Poland, on Saturday, April 26, 2014 on the eve of the Vatican ceremony in which the much-loved pontiff is to be declared a saint. Krakow and nearby Wadowice are among the key places linked to John Paul in Poland that are holding observances to mark the occasion. People will be able to see the Vatican ceremony live on giant screens there, and in many other places in Poland. (Czarek Sokolowski, Associated Press)

Pilgrims were also arriving in John Paul's southern hometown of Wadowice, now festively decorated in white-and-red national flags and in papal colors of yellow and white, and with the much-loved pontiff's portraits in some windows.

Two stages have been put up in the square in front of the house where Wojtyla was born on May 18, 1920, and in front of the neighboring basilica, where he was baptized. Concerts were planned Sunday in thanks for the elevation of one of the greatest figures in Poland ever.

"I think sometimes Poland does not get that much recognition, so everything about Pope John Paul is important for this country," said Sara Szpila of Vancouver, Canada.

John Paul remains special to his countrymen for having inspired the ouster of communism from Poland, for his support for the Solidarity freedom movement that peacefully achieved that in 1989, and for the pontiff's teaching centered on human rights and dignity.

His contribution to abolishing the Iron Curtain in Europe is still appreciated by those in power at the time.

Germany's chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, said in an open letter published Saturday by the Bild daily that the pope played "a very considerable part in bringing down the Berlin Wall and making the peaceful end of Germany and Europe's division possible."

A crucifix and Pope John Paul II’s picture in the hand of a man praying in a sanctuary in Krakow, Poland, on Saturday, April 26, 2014 on the eve of  the Vatican ceremony in which the much-loved pontiff is to be declared a saint.  Krakow and nearby Wadowice are among the key places linked to John Paul in Poland that are holding observances to mark the occasion. People will be able to see the Vatican ceremony live on giant screens there, and in many other places in Poland.  (Czarek Sokolowski, Associated Press) A crucifix and Pope John Paul II’s picture in the hand of a man praying in a sanctuary in Krakow, Poland, on Saturday, April 26, 2014 on the eve of the Vatican ceremony in which the much-loved pontiff is to be declared a saint. Krakow and nearby Wadowice are among the key places linked to John Paul in Poland that are holding observances to mark the occasion. People will be able to see the Vatican ceremony live on giant screens there, and in many other places in Poland. (Czarek Sokolowski, Associated Press)

"He was a pontifex in the true sense of the word: he was a bridge builder," Kohl added.

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