In a tearful, farewell Mass in his beloved Krakow, Pope John Paul II told more than 2 million Poles on Sunday that he would like to return one day — but "this is entirely in God's hands."
The ailing, 82-year-old pope, brushing aside any notion he might step down while making his ninth papal trip to his homeland, grew weaker during the three-hour service until adoring throngs raised his spirits by chanting his name.
"God bless you," he said to applause from the vast throng filling the Blonia meadows. Then, choosing his words carefully, he said, "I would like to add 'until next time' but this is entirely in God's hands."
The Polish pilgrimage has been both a trip down memory lane for the pope — who visited his old house, the quarry where he labored during the Nazi occupation and his family's graves — and an opportunity to underline Poland's deeply Catholic traditions as it moves to join heavily secular Western Europe.
Most of all it, the pilgrimage has emphasized Poland's extraordinary bond with its favorite son — the first Polish pope, who successfully challenged communism.
"You are great. We love you. Stay with us," the crowd shouted.
"I say, you are telling me to desert Rome!" John Paul responded with tears in his eyes.
Many in the crowd, fearing it would be the pope's last visit, were teary-eyed, too.
The crowd was the biggest for a papal Mass since 4 million people attended a 1995 service in Manila, Philippines. Previous record crowds in Poland have numbered around 1 million since John Paul began returning to his homeland after assuming the papacy in 1978.
John Paul looked uncomfortable sitting on the altar in green robes as temperatures reached the low 80s. His hands trembled and he often slurred his words, symptoms of Parkinson's disease, during the long ceremony that included the beatification of four Poles — three priests and a nun.
One of those beatified was an archbishop of Warsaw, Zygmunt Szczesny Felinski, who was deported to Russia in 1863 by Warsaw's then-czarist rulers as punishment for his loyalty to the Vatican. He remained in exile for 20 years and never was allowed to regain his position in Warsaw before dying in 1895.
John Paul, as a theme, warned Poles of dangers posed when man "puts himself in God's place" — referring to genetic engineering and euthanasia — and by encroachments on traditional church teaching.
"When the noisy propaganda of liberalism, of freedom without truth or responsibility, grows stronger in our country, too, the shepherds of the church cannot fail to proclaim the one fail-proof philosophy of freedom, which is the truth of the cross of Christ," the pope said.
The message reaches a nation increasingly soured on a capitalist system that has created social and economic disparities, and plays into growing sentiments among conservative Catholics that political decisions made on issues such as abortion in order to integrate Poland with Western Europe will spoil their country.
The crowd responded to his homily with chants of "Thank you."
In the hours before the Mass, the arriving Polish faithful overflowed the sprawling Blonia meadows.
Many pilgrims traveled hours in small parish groups on buses and trains for the Mass, carrying food and bed rolls to catch a few hours of sleep after arriving in the early morning hours. Some strummed guitars and played drums, creating a festival atmosphere as they streamed passed vendors grilling meats and selling stools, hats and papal souvenirs.
Arriving for the Mass, John Paul circled the crowd in his "popemobile" as pilgrims sang choruses of "Poland loves you, Krakow loves you," a song written for a planned Mass at Blonia in 1999 that the pope canceled because he had the flu.
"I have constantly tears in my eyes today. I'm afraid I'll cry when I see him passing. It's such a distinction from God that the pope is Polish," said Magda Fidej, 52, from Krakow.
Elzbieta Krawczykiewicz, a retired pharmacist, said, "This visit is sure to give him new strength because it's his beloved Krakow, because it's Poland. I heard him during arrival and it was the same strong voice that I have known for years."
John Paul's four-day visit ends Monday when he visits a sanctuary 27 miles outside Krakow. He is scheduled to depart for Rome in the early evening.