KRAKOW, Poland - Eyes glinting with tears, throats hoarse with grief, the Polish faithful numbly absorbed the news last night that the man they regarded as their spiritual father and political liberator was dead.
"All the people of my village? How can I explain how they feel?" asked an anguished Slowik Wojtik, a 35-year-old fur and hide trader who lives near Wadowice, the hamlet where Pope John Paul II grew up. "This was a person who was for us like a father. All of Poland is crying now."
Anna Krystosiak, 21, an agent for the Polish airline, LOT, stood solemnly with red-rimmed eyes in the Warsaw airport. A Polish television station had just announced that Poland's most famous native son, who was born Karol Wojtyla, had finally succumbed to age and illness.
"He was our hero," she said. "He was our friend."
Polish stations broadcast reports on the national mourning from cities around the country, including Wadowice and Czestochowa, the site of the Jasna Gora Monastery and its renowned shrine to the Black Madonna. A radio station played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
Some Poles refused to believe that their prayers had gone unanswered. Finally, Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in a speech delivered just before midnight: "We lost the man we most loved."
But in most ways Pope John Paul's longtime home of Krakow was the focus of the nation's grief. As the reports from the Vatican grew more ominous, thousands gathered throughout the day in the sprawling Rynek Glowny or Market Square, the largest medieval town square in Europe.
Mourners lit candles and created tiny impromptu shrines in the park that rings the city center. A nest of flames sat at the feet of one of the sleeping lion statues at the foot of the 14th-century Town Hall Tower, draped with an 18-foot photograph of the pope, his head downcast.
The kebab stands, beer halls and pizza parlors were closed or nearly deserted last night. Instead, knots of people wandered through the streets in eerie silence.
At the 700-year-old Church of Our Lady on the square, hundreds of mourners filed quietly in and out, passing the ornate altar to pay silent homage before the main altar. From the door, the church resembled a crowded cavern filled with flickering candle lights and incense. A trumpeter in one of the church's two towers played a sweet but mournful fanfare.
Among the shuffling stream of mourners was Bart Kopec, 24, of Seaside, N.J., who was born in Krakow but left with his family when he was just a year old. Kopec's mother was baptized decades ago by then-Archbishop Wojtyla in the Church of Our Lady.
The young computer graphics designer returned to Poland three months ago on a quest for his roots. The death of his hometown's most famous native son affected him more than he expected, he said.
"I've never been close to the faith," he said. "It just slipped away. But I'm seeing things in a different way now. I promised myself I'd go to confession. I haven't been to confession in 13 years. But it's not for myself. It's for John Paul."
Krakow was in many ways the center of Pope John Paul's life.
This is where the 18-year-old Wojtyla moved with his father after the death of his mother a decade earlier in Wadowice. This is where he attended university and studied acting before his studies were halted by the Nazi invaders.
He clandestinely started to study religion in Krakow, became archbishop here in 1964, and cardinal in 1967. Here he remained until 1978, when he became Pope John Paul II at the age of 58.
Pope John Paul's long and ultimately successful struggle against the Communist Party for control of Poland's predominantly Catholic population began here as well.
When he arrived in June 1979 for his first papal visit, 3 million people came to see him in the Krakow Park. It marked, by some reckoning, the beginning of the end - not just for Poland's Communists, but for the Soviet empire itself.
August Roch of Krakow was just 18 when Wojtyla became pope. But he remembers the electrifying effect that the pontiff had on the people of his city and his nation as he preached non-violent struggle against tyranny.
He can still recall, he said, the televised pictures of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist strongman who came to power in February 1981, when he was forced to welcome Pope John Paul on the pontiff's politically charged 1983 visit to Poland.
Roch, now a 44-year-old manager with a technology firm, said the political struggle that Pope John Paul inspired continues, pointing to the recent overthrow of former Communist leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.
"He brought us hope and freedom," he said.
Stanley Potaczek, an economics student at the pope's alma mater, the Jagiellonian University, said Pope John Paul "was where he always wanted to be," in heaven with God.
The world would mourn the pope, he conceded. But nowhere would his loss be more keenly felt than here, in his home. "He brought a lot of light to Poland," Potaczek said. "He was one of us."
Irene Ratusz, 25, another economics student at the Jagiellonian, said that perhaps Pope John Paul's passing would somehow bring about one of his fondest wishes, for the unification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The split between Catholic and Orthodox has divided the Slavic world for more than 1,000 years. But the pope's suffering and sacrifice, she said, could heal even that ancient wound.
"What happened today will bring us together," she said.
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times