Reuters International

Pope Francis gestures during his Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican July 17, 2016. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

(reuters_tickers)

By Wojciech Zurawski and Wiktor Szary

KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - Pope Francis set off on his first trip to Poland on Wednesday to preside at an international Catholic youth jamboree, a usually joyous event that has been dampened by the murder of a priest in a church in France.

The killing of 85-year-old Father Jacques Hamel, forced to his knees by Islamist militants who then slit his throat, sent a deep chill over the World Youth Day event.

"We listened to the news with disbelief, we got phone calls from our parents who tried to reassure us," said Guillaume from Bordeaux, a pilgrim in his early 20s.

"Pope John Paul II said that we should be tolerant and not resort to force. My heart tells me that this is true, but after what happened my head is now telling me something else," said the young man, who declined to give his last name.

Pope Francis, who left Rome for the southern Polish city of Krakow around 1200 GMT, said the murder was particularly "barbarous" because it happened during the central rite of Christian worship as the priest was saying morning Mass.

For many Catholics it was eerily reminiscent of the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot by a right-wing death squad in 1980 while he was saying Mass in a hospital chapel.

Police have not raised the threat level for the gathering of more than a million Catholic youth from around the world, sometimes called the "Catholic Woodstock". Security levels were already tight, Polish authorities said.

Francis is expected to use the event to pay tribute to the murdered priest, who some say should be declared a martyr because of the way he was killed for his faith.

PREDECESSOR'S SHADOW

Francis' five-day trip to the Krakow area will take place in the shadow of his predecessor, John Paul, who has cult-like status in Poland for his role in inspiring his native country to stand up to communist rule.

There were more posters of John Paul in Krakow than of Francis, an Argentine, but thousands of Catholics lined roads leading from the airport, where the pope was expected to land around 4 p.m. (1400 GMT) amid heavy security.

"We are keeping space for our friends on the pavement here, we've prepared a song for the pope," said Maurizio Tellini, a young pilgrim from Italy.

Poland's political landscape has undergone a big shift since October when the eurosceptic, conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party ended nearly a decade of secular-minded government.

Its leaders harnessed a brand of patriotism infused with Catholic piety to build popularity among voters and ensure the backing of the clergy, influential across provincial Poland.

Francis will also visit the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and pray at Czestochowa, site of the country's holiest shrine.

(Additional reporting and writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by James Dalgleish and Robin Pomeroy)

reuters_tickers

 Reuters International