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At edge of crowd, young Poles thank a national hero

VATICAN CITY -- The distant, televised image of Pope John Paul II's plain wooden casket resting on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica marked the end of a long journey for Daniel Podraza, 21, and his girlfriend, Justyna Szozkowicz, 18.

After leaving their hometown of Tarnow, Poland, on Thursday afternoon, they spent 30 hours on a bus, took a shower in a gas station, and spent the night outside in the cold outside so they could say a farewell to the Polish national hero.

Tears crept from the corners of Podraza's tired eyes as Gregorian chants filled St. Peter's Square and scenes of Pope John Paul's final public appearance danced across giant television screens.

''We are lucky that we are here. We never expected to be. The pope was one of the greatest men for me," said Podraza, standing at the edge of the crowd.

About 2 million Poles flocked to Rome to view the body of the pope, born Karol Wojtyla. But only a small fraction of them were among the 300,000 mourners that Rome's police allowed beyond the strictly guarded barricades. Podraza and Szozkowicz camped out in nearby Piazza Risorgimento, where pilgrims ate, sang, and played soccer in the streets the night before.

''It was cold and not comfortable, but it was worth it. We wanted to be here first," said Szozkowicz, hardly able to keep her eyes open, her hair matted from sleeping on a thin mat on a patch of grass.

Like many other Polish young people waving red and white flags in the crowd, the couple came in place of their parents and relatives, who lived through Poland's Nazi invasion and communist regime. When the first Polish pope ascended to the seat of St. Peter in 1978, his first mission was to put an end to communism.

Podraza said his and Szozkowicz's parents paid the $130 cost of the trip ''because it is important for us and for them . . . They love him because he united people. When there wasn't democracy, he brought people together in a peaceful way and defeated the state."

But the standards set by John Paul on moral issues, the two said, are not easy to follow in contemporary society. When the conversation turned to sex, they exchanged glances and giggled.

''It's hard, because society influences us and there are a lot of situations when you have to make a choice as to what is the best way," she said, resting her head on Podraza's shoulder.

Throughout his 26-year papacy, John Paul maintained a conservative stance against abortion and consistently promoted abstinence, even as a means to combat AIDS.

''Nowadays, many people have sex at a young age, but our religion says not to have sex until we find someone for our whole lives," Podraza said. ''It's a problem if people go to a disco, meet for the first time, have sex, and forget about it the next day."

Podraza said he hoped that the next pope would carry on with John Paul's agenda. But even more than connecting with the young generation, John Paul's successor will have the hardest time impressing the Poles.

''It will be hard for him, because Poles have a lot of fears that he will not be so good. The Poles won't trust this new pope as much as this pope," said Podraza, folding his arms and shaking his head. ''We loved him."

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