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Pope meets with Lech Walesa, president-turned-private citizen

June 4, 1997 GMT

CZESTOCHOWA, Poland (AP) _ When Pope John Paul II first met Lech Walesa, he was the hero of Solidarity, a shipyard electrician and devout Catholic seeking _ and receiving _ papal support for his challenge to communism.

Their meeting on Wednesday was a sign of how much has changed. Walesa, a former president tossed out by Polish voters, was given 20 seconds, just long enough for him to kiss the pope’s ring.

Walesa’s reduction in rank to private citizen tells much about the political landscape in Poland since the fall of communism.

A Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Walesa once was idolized as the symbol of Poland’s return to self-determination.

But on Wednesday, he blended into the scenery, standing behind a row of bishops and invisible to the hundreds of thousands who turned out to see John Paul on what many believe will be his last his pilgrimage home.

For their brief encounter, the two staunch foes of communism chose the town of Czestochowa, whose monastery houses the Black Madonna icon. In times of peril for the fatherland, Poles came here to pray.

Walesa, a Solidarity pin in his lapel, was praying with his wife, Danuta, and four of his daughters when John Paul entered the chapel for the brief encounter.

``It was symbolic,″ said Walesa’s former media adviser, Jerzy Klechta. ``It was a meeting of two Poles who helped defeat communism.″

Later, the 77-year-old pontiff flew to the mountain resort of Zakopane for a day off midway through his hectic, 11-day trip to his native country.

Walesa reportedly had balked at meeting the pope at Zakopane, in the Tatra Mountains, possibly because they had met there after the communists banned the Solidarity labor movement.

Walesa came to Rome for the first time in January 1981, heady with the success of Solidarity, which was inspired by John Paul’s triumphant return home in 1979. Walesa was looking for papal approval for the movement, the first independent labor union in the Soviet bloc.

He received it _ along with a caution to proceed with moderation.

In December of that year, John Paul’s fears were borne out. The regime cracked down, declared martial law and outlawed Solidarity.

So, when John Paul next visited the country, in 1983, the two held secret talks to avoid antagonizing the government. Some believed the pope had advised him to bow out of any future political role, for fear of further riling the communist government.

When, upon the pope’s return to Rome, an editor at the Vatican daily newspaper suggested such a scenario under the headline ``Honors to Sacrifice,″ he was promptly dismissed.

In fact, Walesa did stage a comeback, in a partnership with church leaders, and was elected president in 1991.

But by then, the climate was changing again. Many Poles resented Walesa’s support of the church’s agenda, which included banning abortion and holding religion classes in the public schools. Voters had also grown tired of style of governing, which at times was divisive and heavy handed.

In the 1995 elections, Walesa was defeated by Aleksander Kwasniewski despite calls by bishops to keep an ex-communist from becoming president.