LEON, Mexico (AP) — There was little excitement in Leon in the hours before the pope arrived.
Crowds were thin. Spectators napped under trees. Vendors complained about the low turnout here in the conservative heartland of Mexico's Roman Catholicism.
Then, as Pope Benedict XVI's plane appeared in the shimmering heat of Friday afternoon, people poured from their homes. They packed sidewalks five and six deep, screaming ecstatically as the pope passed, waving slowly. Some burst into tears.
Many had said moments earlier that they could never love a pope as strongly as Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. But the presence of a pope on Mexican soil touched a chord of overwhelming respect and adoration for the papacy itself, the personification for many of the Catholic Church, and God. Thousands found themselves taken aback by their own emotions.
Two dozen youths from a Guadalajara church group were inspired to awake well before dawn Saturday and give Benedict the same welcome many had given John Paul on his visits to the country. They went as close as security would permit to the school where the pope was staying and serenaded him with a traditional song of greeting and celebration.
"We sang with all our heart and all our force," said Maria Fernandez de Luna, a member of the group. "It gave us goosebumps to sing 'Las Mananitas' for him."
As a girl, Celia del Rosario Escobar, 42, saw John Paul II on one of his five trips to Mexico, which brought him near-universal adoration.
"I was 12 and it's an experience that still makes a deep impression on me," she said. "I thought this would be different, but, no, the experience is the same."
"I can't speak," she murmured, pressing her hands to her chest and starting to cry.
Belief in the goodness and power of the pope runs deep in Guanajuato, the most observantly Catholic state in Mexico, a place of deep social conservatism and the wellspring of an armed uprising against harsh anti-clerical laws in the 1920s. Some in the crowd came for literal healing, a blessing from the pope's passage that would cure illness, or bring them more work. Others sought inspiration, rejuvenation of their faith, energy to be a better parent.
Many said the pope's message of peace and unity would help heal their country, traumatized by the deaths of more than 47,000 people in a drug war that has escalated during a government offensive against cartels that began more than five years ago.
In a speech on the airport tarmac shortly after arriving, Benedict said he was praying for all in need, "particularly those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence."
He said he had come to Mexico as a pilgrim of hope, to encourage Mexicans to "transform the present structures and events which are less than satisfactory and seem immovable or insurmountable while also helping those who do not see meaning or a future in life."
No part of Mexico has been spared at least a small scrape with drug gang violence, but Escobar said she hopes that Benedict will help turn around a society devastated by the drug trade and the brutal violence it spawns.
"I would like him to raise the consciousness of those people who are hurting Mexico, those involved in drug addiction, in the mafia," Escobar said. "I hope that we have will more respect for life."
Antonio Martinez, 57, said he wanted relief from diabetes and divine intervention that would bring him more than occasional work in Leon's shoe factories. He stood by the side of the road, resting against his bicycle, waiting for a glimpse of the pope.
"Simply greeting the pope and receiving his blessing can change our lives," Martinez said. "I believe that my health will improve, that more sources of work will appear."
The faithful lined more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) of the pope's route from the airport into Leon shouting the ultimate welcome: "Benedict, brother, you are now Mexican!"
The pope responded to the greeting as he stepped off his plane to wild cheers and the clamor of ringing bells.
"This is a proud country of hospitality, and nobody feels like a stranger in your land," Benedict said. "I knew that. Now I see it and now I feel it in my heart."
The streets of Leon, where the pope will stay during his three-day trip, took on a carnival atmosphere, with entire blocks exploding in yellow confetti when he passed in his bulletproof popemobile.
Juan Manuel Rosales, who works in one of Leon's many shoe factories, came to the papal route with a glass-enclosed altar to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, patron saint of a nearby town. Around the ceramic statue he placed pictures of the sick and asked the saint that they be healed.
"Everyone has a different reason for being here," Rosales said. "I hope to become a better person. I hope that we stop shooting each other."
Luz del Carmen Castillo Silva, a 15-year-old student at a Catholic women's technical college, said she came five hours from the city of Tlaxcala to strengthen a faith that already had her attending daily Mass.
"I want to become another person when I see the pope, ministering to people, speaking with God. ... Seeing the pope, we see the love that we have for Christ," she said.
The weeklong trip to Mexico and Cuba is Benedict's first to both countries, and it will be a test of stamina for the pope, who turns 85 next month. At the airport Friday in Rome, he used a cane, apparently for the first time in public, while walking about 100 yards (meters) to the airliner's steps.
Papal aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Benedict has been using the cane in private for about two months because it makes him feel more secure and not for any medical reason. He left the cane aside as he disembarked the plane in Mexico.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.