Vatican City Pope John Paul II, Poland's favorite son, returns to his homeland Friday, making a nostalgic four-day visit in what he calls the "twilight years" of his papacy.
The ailing 82-year-old pope surprised skeptics with his relative vigor during an 11-day tour of Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, although he weakened as the trip went on. John Paul has been resting at his vacation palace outside Rome since returning from the trip Aug. 2, preparing for his ninth visit to Poland since he assumed the papacy nearly 24 years ago.
As he battles the ravaging symptoms of Parkinson's disease and knee and hip ailments, the Vatican has again denied persistent rumors that John Paul would remain in Poland, retiring from the papacy.
And while talk continues that the Polish trip the 98th foreign tour for the most traveled pope in history may be his last, the Vatican points to possible trips next year to the Philippines and Croatia, although there is no formal confirmation they will be scheduled and no more travel is planned this year.
One thing is sure: Many Poles fear this may be John Paul's last trip home, the closing of a Polish chapter in Vatican history.
So more than 4 million people are expected to greet the pope during his homecoming, including 2 million turning out in a meadow on the outskirts of Krakow for an open-air Mass on Sunday, the biggest public event of the trip. The last time the pope visited Poland was in 1999.
Organizers have arranged visits to places John Paul lived in Krakow, some linked to his youth and others to his role as an influential cleric in communist Poland during the Cold War including his residence when fellow cardinals of the Church elected him as the first Polish pope in history on Oct. 16, 1978.
In the most personal moments of the trip, he will stop at his family's tombs in Krakow's Rakowicki cemetery and pray in the imposing Wawel Cathedral, burial place of Poland's kings. Some say John Paul may choose to be buried there himself. Popes leave such instructions in their testaments, opened only after their deaths.