26 hours to Rome: Poles board the Popieluszko train for John Paul's beatification

/ Source: The Associated Press

They slept in the aisles and celebrated Mass in the restaurant car. Eight hundred Poles boarded a special train Friday night for a 26-hour trip across Europe, bound for Rome and the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II.

They were joining tens of thousands of Poles who are massing in Rome for Sunday's beatification, a major celebration for a nation overjoyed at seeing the Polish-born pontiff moved closer to sainthood.

By Saturday morning, the pilgrim train was cruising through the Austrian countryside.

And as picturesque farmhouses, creeks and mountains sped past, priests celebrated Mass in the restaurant car, setting up a makeshift altar on a dining table bedecked with a white cloth and a four-inch crucifix.

The faithful followed along in the aisles, some kneeling, hands clasped in prayer, and priests pushed their way down packed, narrow aisles to give them Communion.

Mieczyslawa Rzepecka, 55, who was making the pilgrimage with her husband and son, said she planned to consume only dry crackers and water during the journey, a partial fast meant as a gesture of piety.

The long train ride doesn't bother her — she said she knows that most Poles are making the trip by bus, which is longer and much more cramped.

"If you love John Paul, this is not hard," she said.

The "Popieluszko" train the pilgrims were riding on is named for Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest recently beatified for having been murdered by the communist regime in 1984 — the system that John Paul is credited with helping to topple.

The train is due to pull into Rome a few hours before Sunday's beatification.

All-night vigil
For those who arrived earlier, an all-night prayer vigil begins Saturday night in Rome's Circus Maximus, featuring testimony from the French nun whose inexplicable cure from Parkinson's disease was the miracle needed to beatify John Paul.

The journey for the Poles aboard the Popieluszko began with a Mass at Popieluszko's former church in Warsaw on Friday evening. The pilgrims then made their way together to a nearby train station, pulling suitcases or carrying backpacks and bottles of water.

Some on board said they were going to Rome to give thanks to John Paul for prayers he had answered already, or to Pope Benedict XVI for the speedy beatification of their beloved countryman.

Others said they were seeking cures for health problems, while some said they wanted to recapture the powerful sense of community they experienced during John Paul's lifetime at youth gatherings he led.

Sylwia Kurowska, 31, said she is expecting a spiritual experience similar to John Paul's funeral at a packed St. Peter's Square in 2005, when the wind turned the pages of a book of Gospels on his coffin.

"That felt like a scene from the Bible, with God giving a sign that is there," Kurowska said. "I think something will happen during the beatification that will create that same kind of atmosphere."

Malgorzata Drutkowska, 60, began to cry as she gave her reason for the trip: Praying to John Paul for the health of loved ones.

In particular, she will pray for a 33-year-old daughter recently diagnosed with diabetes, a husband who has suffered two heart attacks, an elderly friend with Parkinson's disease, and spinal problems of her own.

"I am praying for all this," she said, holding her hand to her heart as wiped away tears.

Goodbye kisses
Before boarding, some young people joined in religious songs with a long-bearded monk. Loved ones kissed each other goodbye. A man on the platform lifted Polish-Italian phrase books to the train windows, hoping for buyers.

"I don't have room in my bags for that," one woman told him.

Several priests walked about in yellow baseball caps emblazoned with an image of John Paul, prompting Rzepecka to ask several people around her: "Are they giving out caps?"

Soon enough, organizers did indeed hand out the yellow caps and buttons of Christ and John Paul.

Prayers were said over the train's intercom system. Organizers also passed out maps of Rome and a printout with some common Polish expressions translated into Italian.

In any case, the pilgrims from the Popieluszko train — like so many other Poles on limited budgets — will have little time to use any Italian in Rome.

They are to arrive at around midnight Saturday, and will then spend several hours praying and waiting at St. Peter's Square for the morning beatification. After that, there will only be a few hours left before they have to board the train for the return trip home.

A guide walked through the aisles as people were getting settled in for the night Friday, giving them various bits of advice. To one group in a compartment that sleeps six, he warned against leaving any valuables aboard the train.

When the same group organized a similar trip to Rome for John Paul's funeral, "everything was stolen, even jars of pickles," he said.

Most passengers were not lucky enough to get a space in a sleeping car, and as the train made its way south in the dark, pilgrims slept sitting up, or they stretched out on the floors of corridors, their first of three rough nights.