- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

MEXICO CITY In a ceremony mixing Indian and European traditions, Pope John Paul II canonized the Roman Catholic Church's first Indian saint yesterday, calling Juan Diego a catalyst for converting the Americas to Christianity.

Hundreds of thousands of jubilant believers lined the streets, singing, cheering and sobbing as they waved yellow-and-white flags. Some watched the ceremony on large screens mounted in the street, and leapt in excitement as Juan Diego was proclaimed a saint. Most caught only a quick glimpse of the pope as he passed by, but that was enough.

"I got chills up to my head," said Irene Guzman, a 25-year-old speech therapist from San Gabriel, Calif.

Inside the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, dancers dressed in feathered Aztec costumes shook rattles and blew into conch shells as the image of the new saint was carried to the altar. Priests read from the Bible in Spanish and in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

The pope said Juan Diego, to whom the Virgin appeared in 1531, was instrumental in the conversion of millions in the Americas to the Catholic faith.

"Christ's message, through his mother, took up the central elements of indigenous culture, purified them and gave them the definitive sense of salvation," he said. "He facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds and became the catalyst for a new Mexican identity."

The 82-year-old pontiff, who suffers from symptoms of Parkinson's disease and hip and knee problems, appeared weary on the last leg of his 11-day, three-country visit.

At his arrival ceremony Tuesday night, the pope motioned to an aide to help him stand as a band struck up the national anthems of Mexico and the Vatican. But he began to slide back into his seat, and President Vicente Fox reached over to steady him.

Mr. Fox, a devout Roman Catholic, also attended the Mass yesterday, the first time a Mexican president has attended a papal Mass, and kissed the pontiff's ring, fueling a controversy in the fervently Catholic country that only recently eased anti-clerical laws.

"What about the secular state?" the left-leaning La Jornada newspaper asked on its front page, above a photograph showing Mr. Fox kissing the ring.

"Fox's kiss has an impact," said El Universal, pointing out that the event was unprecedented in the history of Mexico.

Mexico recently repealed what for decades were some of the world's strictest anti-religion laws, designed to rein in a church that for centuries ruled as part of the colonial power structure, owned much of Mexico's land and allied itself with foreign invaders and domestic dictators.

Mexicans have a special affection for John Paul, who chose their country for the first foreign trip of his papacy and has returned for the fifth time on what many expect will be one of his last.

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