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Pope Francis will meet Auschwitz survivors during visit to Poland

Participants in the 'March of the Living' carry Israeli flags inside the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz last year (CNS photo/Stanislaw Rozpedzik, EPA)

Pope Francis will meet hospitalised children and survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp when he visits Poland next month — and is planning a surprise, officials said on Thursday.

Francis will be in Poland from July 27 to 31 for World Youth Day in and around Krakow, in southern Poland, with hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world. It will be the 14th such gathering with the pope’s participation. The meetings were initiated in 1985 by St John Paul II.

The organisers say that some 570,000 participants have registered so far, but they are expecting up to two million at the closing Mass on July 31.

Francis’s schedule, released Thursday, includes a visit to the Auschwitz memorial on July 29, where he will walk through the main gate with the grotesque Nazi motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Set You Free) and will meet with a few survivors in the Auschwitz part of the former death camp that was operated by Nazi Germans in occupied Poland.

The Pope will then pray and speak at the memorial to the victims, located in the Birkenau part of the former camp. Francis will pray privately at the death cell of Fr Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a friar who offered to die for another inmate, Franciszek Gajowniczek, who survived Auschwitz. Francis will be the third pope to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, after St John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Later that day, Francis will pay a private visit to a children’s hospital in Krakow.

On July 28, Francis will make a half-day visit to Poland’s holiest shrine, Jasna Gora, in the town of Czestochowa, where he will celebrate a Mass on the occasion of 1,050 years of Catholicism in Poland and pray at the icon of the Black Madonna.

In the afternoon he will take a city tram in Krakow to go to a meeting with young people in the city’s meadows, called Blonia, where he will hear Confessions. The meadows will also be the site of the Pope’s walking the Way of the Cross with the young pilgrims in the evening of July 29.

On July 30, Francis will visit two sanctuaries in Krakow, including one dedicated to St John Paul II.

The key event is the July 31 Sunday Mass when Francis is to deliver a homily and the usual Angelus prayer in the fields in Brzegi, near Krakow. After that he is to briefly meet with the organisers and volunteers of the youth gathering, before flying back to Rome.

The Pontiff will continue St John Paul’s tradition of talking informally in the evenings to the gathered crowd from the window of the Krakow archbishop’s residence, where he will be staying.

Nuncio to Poland Archbishop Celestino Migliore also said Francis was planning a surprise, but gave no further details.