Iffy skies make pope take car, not copter to Poland shrine


CZESTOCHOWA, Poland (AP) — Worry about bad weather prompted a last-minute change in Pope Francis’ travel plans Thursday during his Polish pilgrimage, with the pontiff opting to take a car instead of a military helicopter to a shrine cherished by Poles as their spiritual capital.

Although security concerns have accompanied the pope’s first-ever trip to Eastern Europe, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said iffy skies prompted the decision to drive instead of fly to the Jasna Gora monastery and shrine some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Krakow, where Francis’ visit centers around a Catholic youth jamboree that has drawn hundreds of thousands of participants this week.

Francis will have his first big meeting with the young faithful in a Krakow meadow Thursday evening.

En route, Francis made an unscheduled stop at a clinic to visit and pray for comatose Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, an-89-year-old retired prelate who had been archbishop of Krakow. Marcharski had replaced Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in the post after the latter was elected the world’s first Polish pontiff, John Paul II, in 1978.

With John Paul a national hero as well as a beloved saint, Francis on this five-day trip finds himself in a deeply Catholic country that is attached to Czestochowa, where the shrine is located, and where a main boulevard is named after John Paul. An hour before the start of Mass, marking the 1,050th anniversary of Poland’s baptism, the town under drab skies, seemed largely subdued for a place about to host a pontiff. The Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags and photos of Francis — usually a staple of papal visits — didn’t seem in fashion on apartment buildings and shops.

Stanislaw Jarosz, a monk from Jasna Gora, told the Polish news agency PAP that Francis is like Jesus in showing simplicity and an open heart to people. He predicted that the Mass at the shrine, attended by tens of thousands of people, will be the “start of a certain process” of overcoming differences.

In his first speech after arrival in Poland Wednesday, Francis called on Poles to be compassionate and welcoming to those in need, especially refugees. He also met with Polish President Andrzej Duda, whose populist government has virtually slammed the door on asylum-seekers and economic migrants from the Middle East and Africa who are flooding southern European shores.

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Monika Scislowska from Krakow, and Vanessa Gera from Warsaw contributed to this report.

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