KRAKÓW, Poland: Pope Francis heads to Poland on Wednesday for an international Catholic youth festival with a mission to encourage openness to migrants made tougher by a jihadist murder of a priest in France.
The Argentine pontiff is flying in to meet youngsters from the world over at a weeklong faith extravaganza dubbed “the Catholic Woodstock,” but is expected to tackle the rightwing government over refugee rights before he gets down to prayer.
The brutal killing of an elderly priest during mass in France on Tuesday, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group, cast a shadow over festivities among the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Krakow and increased concerns over security.
It has also made Francis’s task of championing migrants that bit harder, playing into the line held by Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and her rightwing government, who have refused to take in refugees for security reasons.
Francis, 79, will meet Polish President Andrzej Duda in Krakow’s Wawel Castle, before retiring for a question-and-answer session with the country’s bishops behind closed doors in the city’s Cathedral.
The pope, who voiced his “pain and horror” at the “barbaric killing” of the priest, is likely to slam religious violence and the persecution of Christians while warning Europe not to fall prey to xenophobia.
Poland is deploying over 40,000 security personnel for the visit.
True to character, Francis is refusing to bow to security concerns despite a series of terror attacks targeting civilians in Europe, and will hop in his open-top pope-mobile for some legs of the trip.
“World Youth Day is a great celebration and we hope the attack in France will not ruin it,” said Marcin Przeciszewski, head of Catholic Information Agency KAI, as groups of faithful gathered Tuesday to pray for the French cleric.
One 20-year old French pilgrim, who gave her name as Elisabeth, said: “I think we are all mourning to some extent, it’s inevitable. This has to be the WYD (World Youth Day) of hope.”
A group of French pilgrims gathered in Krakow for prayer on Tuesday night.
“The best answer to violence is love, peace and prayer,” said one of the young pilgrims, Pierre Darme, as some of his friends prayed with their eyes shut.
The pope will likely have to work overtime to win hearts and minds in the homeland of Polish pope John Paul II.
The charismatic saint, hailed for his role in toppling Communism, sponsored conservative Catholic movements—a legacy which sits uncomfortably with the Argentine’s attempts to nurture a more flexible, compassionate Church.
“Polish Catholics probably aren’t going to be welcoming the pope they really want, but given their current social and political situation, they may be getting exactly the one they need,” Vatican expert John Allen wrote in Cruxnow.com website.
As Europe struggles to cope with the biggest wave of asylum-seekers since World War II, Francis has repeatedly called for protection of the downtrodden and persecuted, practising what he preaches by sheltering Syrian Muslim families in Rome.
But Poland has refused to take part in an EU deal to share the burden of migrants washing up in Italy and Greece by boat.
“Francis is expected to face a testing time,” wrote Christopher Lamb in Catholic weekly newspaper The Tablet.
Many of the Poland’s bishops are “at odds with the direction of his papacy,” particularly Francis’s push to open church doors to traditional “sinners” such as single mothers and remarried divorced people.
The off-the-record meeting with church leaders will give the pontiff a chance to call on dissident bishops to revise their attitudes.
At the same time, he may take the chance to encourage the conservative government and church in their push to ban all abortion.
At the heart of the visit will be a meeting with Holocaust survivors at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, where Francis will pray for its 1.1 million mostly Jewish victims, before the five-day trip winds up with the customary papal vigil and mass.