Pope John Paul II knows Poland's national strength isn't ever likely to be expressed in material achievements.

Poles keep their anniversaries. And in the weeks before the papal pilgrimage, they marked 10 years from the Round Table talks and June 1989 election which steered communism to a peaceful end.

For many, the rapid progress of the intervening decade makes those events seem distant history. But as President Aleksander Kwasniewski reminded the Pope, post-communist changes have also left a “broad margin of bitterness.”

Crime and corruption are rampant; and for all the impressive government data, 47% of the country's 39 million citizens, according to Warsaw's Main Statistical Office, are living at the social minimum.

In a survey this April by Poland's Social Opinion Research Center, three-quarters of Poles thought rigorous pro-Western reforms were being mishandled Jerzy Buzek's Solidarity-backed government, while two-thirds voiced dissatisfaction with Polish democracy and said it needed fundamental reshaping.

That sense of unfulfillment and exclusion is what John Paul II has tried to home in on.

Preaching June 8 in the northeastern town of Elk, where joblessness runs at 26%, he urged the crowd of 400,000 not to “harden their hearts to the poor.”

“The poor are in our midst: the homeless, beggars, the hungry, the despised, those forgotten by their own families and by society,” the Pope told his congregation, who included Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Belarusans. “We need people who are poor in spirit — people open to truth and grace, open to the great things of God.”

Though Poland is attractive to investors, average earnings here are still a tenth of those in neighboring Germany, while the country's annual GNP of $100 billion is dwarfed by Germany's $2.14 trillion.

Yet his homeland can be strong in the Christian culture which sustained it through history's hard times. This is what John Paul has been trying to impress in a pilgrimage devoted to the Christian Beatitudes — to showing that holiness can still be aspired to even at the close of the second millennium.

The Pope returned to his solidarity theme June 11 in his first ever address to a national parliament.

The memory of Solidarity's “moral lessons,” he told ministers, legislators and judges in the Sejm lower house, should be having a greater influence on public life. Building up a democratic state needs the “united solidarity of all people of good will,” regardless of politics and ideology. The heroic solidarity which “tore down the Berlin Wall and contributed to the unity of Europe” must be supplanted by a no less heroic solidarity of Christian virtue and self-sacrifice.

“If we want Europe's new unity to last, we must build on the basis of the spiritual values which were once its foundation,” the 79-year-old continued. “It must be a great European Community of the Spirit. Here too I renew my appeal to the Old Continent: ‘Europe, open the doors to Christ!’”

The sale of alcohol was banned by government decree in 11 counties on John Paul's itinerary, while police said crimes have dropped by 30% since his arrival.

Meanwhile, the Pope's words have been welcomed by the left as much as the right — prompting Poland's main ex-communist daily, Trybuna, to ask “Whose Pope?” in its June 10 headline.

—Jonathan Luxmoore