SKOCZOW, Poland -- At a Mass for more than 200,000 people on a hilltop not far from his hometown, Pope John Paul II yesterday exhorted his countrymen to return to Roman Catholicism, reminding them that the church has stood with the Polish people through centuries of upheaval and totalitarian rule.
"Those times of great trial for conscience must be remembered, since for us they are an ever timely warning and exhortation to vigilance -- that Polish consciences may not yield to demoralization, that they may not surrender to the trends of moral permissiveness," he said.
John Paul's visit came as church influence is weakening in Polish society, and the pope was clearly seeking to recapture the galvanizing spirit of his inaugural papal visit home 16 years ago. That visit had helped solidify resistance to the Communist regime then running the country and was credited with accelerating the regime's collapse.
But the country's newfound freedom has left the church struggling to define its own role.
John Paul sought yesterday to recapture the lost mood of his 1979 appearance in Krakow, in the days -- as he reminded his audience -- when the church defended "the rights of conscience, and not only for the benefit of believers."
"I said at the time: 'Can one reject Christ and all that he has brought to human history? . . . By virtue of what rational argument, what value close to one's will and heart, would it be possible to stand before oneself, one's neighbor, one's fellow citizens, one's country, in order to cast off, to say no to all that we have seen for 1,000 years?' Today, as Poland lays the foundations for its free and sovereign existence, after experiencing so many years of totalitarianism, these words must be recalled."
John Paul also spoke against what church officials say is a wave of anti-clericalism rising under the guise of freedom of expression.
"In the name of tolerance, an ever more powerful intolerance is actually spreading in public life and in the mass media," the pope said. "Believers are painfully aware of it. They notice the increasing tendency to marginalize them from the life of society. What is most sacred to them is sometimes mocked and ridiculed."
Greeting his words with loud applause and chants of "Long live the holy father," was a crowd ankle deep in mud, covering a vast hilltop overlooking a misty valley of rooftops spiked with steeples, onion domes and smokestacks.
Later, the pope visited the nearby towns of Bielsko-Biala and Zywiec during a nine-hour tour through southern Poland. Nearly every house in every village there decorated its windows with flags and papal photographs.
As is often the case with powerful figures, John Paul was able at times to convey large messages with the smallest of gestures. He made it a point to greet by name President Lech Walesa, whose loss of political popularity has roughly coincided with the decline of church influence. Mr. Walesa's fading Solidarity Party remains closely allied with the church, but he faces an uphill re-election struggle this year against a Communist opponent.
But Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy, the ex-Communist head of the Communist-majority government, rated only an anonymous greeting when John Paul welcomed "the prime minister" just after mentioning Mr. Walesa.
Many Poles view this visit as potentially the last trip home for the 75-year-old pontiff because of his declining health in recent years. He last visited Poland in 1991.