WARSAW (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, speaking from the spot in Poland where his predecessor John Paul inspired his countrymen to defy communism 27 years ago, urged Poles on Friday not to let modern prosperity erode their faith.
The 79-year-old German Pope celebrated an open air mass for more than 300,000 people -- less than the 1 million expected -- in a rainy Warsaw square at the start of the second of four days of pilgrimage in the footsteps of John Paul.
As the crowd huddled under umbrellas, Benedict recalled that it was there in Pilsudski Square that John Paul read a fiery speech that would go down in Polish history as a spark that ushered in a bloodless revolution.
At his 1979 mass, the late Polish pontiff quoted a prayer asking the Holy Spirit "to renew the face of the earth ..." and then improvised, adding "the face of this land."
Poles saw it as a battle cry to fight oppression. Backed by John Paul, the Solidarity trade union was born the following year. After a decade of social tensions that included two years of martial law, Poland in 1989 shook off communism, beginning a domino effect that spread to the rest of the Soviet bloc.
Benedict, who succeeded John Paul in April, 2005, spoke from the base of a massive aluminum cross 25 metres (80 feet) high.
Thrilling his listeners by reading some of his sermon in Polish, he reminded them of the massive significance of the five additional words uttered by John Paul in 1979 and said:
"How can we not thank God today for all that was accomplished in your native land and in the whole world during the Pontificate of John Paul II?"
"Before our eyes, changes occurred in entire political, economic and social systems. People in various countries regained their freedom and their sense of dignity," he said, delivering his homily in Italian and Polish.
FAITH AND SECULARISM
Today Poland is a thriving democracy, a member of the European Union and NATO. But Benedict has expressed concern that the towering faith that inspired Poles in difficult times was weakening under the onslaught of secularism and consumerism.
"I ask you now, cultivate this rich heritage of faith transmitted to you by earlier generations ... stand firm in your faith, hand it down to your children, bear witness to the grace which you have experienced so abundantly through the Holy Spirit in the course of your history," he said in his homily.
Poles responded most enthusiastically to any gestures or remarks he made that reminded them of John Paul. "I was really happy to hear him refer to John Paul, he knows we still have him in our hearts," said Alicja Potszyszcz, 69, a hospice worker.
"He is following in John Paul`s steps -- it`s beautiful," said Father Bronislaw Fidelus from Krakow, where Benedict was due to arrive on Friday evening after visiting Poland`s holiest shrine of Jasna Gora in Czestochowa.
John Paul served as a priest, bishop and cardinal in Krakow until he was elected pope in 1978.
Deferring to sensitivities over the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War Two, when German forces killed vast numbers of Poles and Jews, Benedict will avoid speaking his native language for nearly all of the trip.
"Of course there is a big difference to me," said Eugenia, a 75-year-old pensioner waiting in the rain-drenched crowd.
"John Paul was my countryman so it was natural. He understood what I felt. He understood my everyday problems. The pain after his death is still deep and will stay in my heart forever but Benedict is also my Pope now," she said.
The most poignant stop comes on Sunday when Benedict visits the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, where 1.5 million people, many of them Jews, were killed during World War Two.
It is the only place where Benedict, who was involuntarily enrolled in the Hitler Youth when he was a boy, is expected to speak German in public.