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Pope greets highlanders after visiting favorite mountain haunts

June 6, 1997

ZAKOPANE, Poland (AP) _ Fourteen years ago, during the communist crackdown on the trade union Solidarity, Pope John Paul II went to his beloved Tatra Mountains and told the highlanders he would return ``in more peaceful times.″

Fulfilling his promise, the pope was spending three days in this picturesque, lake-dotted region of southern Poland. Today, he beatified two Polish nuns for their work with the poor during the turn of the century.

Many of the 250,000 people who gathered today for Mass before a wooden altar at the foot of a ski jump wore traditional highlander dress _ ivory wool pants or colorful skirts, embroidered white tops and sheepskin vests, wide-brimmed black hats and red beaded necklaces.

The pope, his face reddening in the mountain sun, clearly was moved by his audience and his return to an area he often visited as a young man.

``For a long time you had been inviting the pope ... and today we can say that Zakopane has managed it and I have too,″ he said to cheers.

While more than 100 violinists played traditional mountain songs, the pope even swayed a bit, arms extended, as if he wanted to dance.

Janina Waliczek, 65, said she was touched by the pope’s comment that he could always count on the highlanders to be faithful to the Catholic church. ``People from the Tatras are his best friends,″ she said.

The pontiff arrived in Zakopane on Wednesday night in the middle of a 11-day pilgrimage to his homeland, his seventh since becoming pope in 1978.

The 77-year-old pontiff was born nearby in Wadowice and frequently hiked and skied in the Tatra Mountains, even after he became cardinal of Krakow, 60 miles to the north.

After today’s Mass, the pope was reunited with 13 classmates from his elementary school in Wadowice, and rode a cable car up Kasprowy Wierch.

The view from the top of the mountain where he used to ski was obscured by scattered showers, but ``he didn’t mind the rain,″ Wojciech Kozak, the cable car operator, told Polish television afterward.

John Paul also visited a small convent at Kalatowki and sang with the Albertine nuns in their chapel.

On Thursday, with no events scheduled, he took a helicopter tour of the mountains and, in a surprise outing an hour before sunset, drove in a black Mercedes to Morskie Oko, one of Poland’s most beautiful mountain lakes, about 20 miles south of Zakopane.

The pontiff went into a lakeside inn and signed the register, adding a ``God Bless,″ owner Maria Lapinska said. He then went out by the water and chatted with about 40 people, shaking hands and blessing them.

During his airborne tour, the pope also flew the Five Ponds Valley, where he used to ski, and the Chocholowska Valley, where he met secretly in 1983 with Solidarity founder Lech Walesa.

After that meeting, the pope took a two-hour hike on a path since named ``the papal route.″ The words he spoke that day fourteen years ago _ ``Today, I could have a close look at the Tatras and could breathe the air of my youth″ _ are carved on wooden board in a chapel in the valley.

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