"God let me live to see the 25th anniversary of my pontificate. Thanks be to God and thanks be to the people. God bless you all," the 83-year-old pontiff said in comments beamed live from the Vatican on Sunday.

  

Tens of thousands of Poles in Wadowice, John Paul's home town, and three other outdoor venues braved a chilly October evening with song and prayer for the pope, widely regarded as Poland's greatest son.

  

His worsening illnesses, Parkinson's disease and severe arthritis, only make the pontiff more real for his countrymen.

 

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"He is in pain but he continues and he must continue. He is an example to all of the weak and sick. He shows us that despite the riches of the Vatican, he is like us," said Teresa Grodecka, standing by a huge screen in Wadowice's main square.

   

Poles believe the pope's steadfast support helped them overthrow communism in 1989 and, earlier this year, seal its accession to the European Union.  Poland is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

   

"The Pontiff gave us Poles faith 25 years ago, that we can, should and must believe. In moments of doubt he was our faith. And now we are different," said Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, a close friend of the Pope.

 

"The mass was stopped to make the announcement and then everyone started crying with joy, praying and kissing one another"

Josef Stopa
Polish resident

"John Paul is like a tree, like a rock - the same today as in 1978. Despite his physical weakness, he shows us that peace, goodness and understanding between people can be reached."

 

To many in Wadowice, a provincial town of 20,000 in hilly southern Poland, the memories of the Pope's election 25 years ago are still fresh.

   

Pawel Jarosz, a grocer, had just pulled into his driveway on the night of 16 October 1978 when his wife ran out of the house to break the news.

   

"This memory is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. She yelled out 'Our Karol Wojtyla has become pope'," recalls Jarosz, who still runs a vegetable stand in Wadowice.

   

Jozef Stopa, who first met Wojtyla in the 1960s, was in a Wadowice church where the future pope used to be an altar boy when he heard the news.

   

"The mass was stopped to make the announcement and then everyone started crying with joy, praying and kissing one another. We prayed and cried that whole night," Stopa said.