- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

ANTIGUA, Guatemala When Pope John Paul II canonizes Brother Pedro de San Jose Betancur in Guatemala today, Catholics around the world will know of his life, his work and the miracles attributed to him.

But in Guatemala, where Brother Pedro lived and worked, Catholics have long known of, loved and revered the 17th-century missionary, who is to become Central America's first saint.

After arriving in Guatemala from Spain, Brother Pedro founded the first free hospital, the first free school, taught children to read and founded the first Catholic order to originate in the Americas, the Bethelemites.

His fame for saving lives continued after his death, and the stories would later be declared miracles, ensuring his place as a saint.

In recent weeks, Pedro-mania has swept Guatemala. His picture smiles down from countless billboards, and yellow-and-white flags featuring the faces of a grinning, soft-eyed pope and a bearded and beaming Betancur are for sale on every major street corner.

Pope John Paul arrived in Guatemala yesterday, the second stop on a three-nation tour that began with visit to Canada to celebrate Mass at a World Youth Day on Sunday.

He is to make Brother Pedro a saint before flying on to Mexico tomorrow, where he will canonize Juan Diego as the church's first Indian saint.

In preparation for today's ceremony, faithful Catholics have flooded Antigua, a colonial town near Guatemala City.

Candles in hand, singing songs of praise, the worshippers walk through the cobblestone streets of a city that looks much like it did when Brother Pedro lived here more than three centuries ago.

They listen to talks on Brother Pedro's work and usually end their pilgrimage with a Mass at the vast San Francisco Church, which houses Brother Pedro's tomb.

"We have had to make more benches and add plastic chairs to accommodate the crowds, and we have had to start giving five Masses a day on Sunday," said Friar Edwin Alvarado, who is in charge of canonization-related activities at the church.

"In recent weeks there has also been an overflowing of letters of thanks and photos being left at Brother Pedro's tomb," he said.

In a museum in the back of the church, the walls are adorned with crutches, plaques, photos and letters from hundreds of people who say that Brother Pedro performed a miracle for them.

But one doesn't need to even visit the museum to hear of Brother Pedro's miracles. Kneeling around his tomb is an endless supply of people who say they are living proof.

Hector Ruano is one of them. Several years ago he underwent experimental heart surgery, which his doctors didn't think he'd survive.

But today he is healthy and has come to Brother Pedro's tomb to give thanks.

"I wasn't always devoted to Brother Pedro, but ever since I heard a voice telling me that Brother Pedro was going to keep me alive, I started to come here regularly to pray at his tomb," Mr. Ruano said.

Months after the pope's last visit in 1996, the government signed a peace accord with rebels to end a 36-year civil war.

The pope is to travel next to Mexico to canonize the church's first Indian saint tomorrow. Juan Diego saw a vision of an olive-skinned Virgin Mary in 1531 while standing on a hill that was also the site of an Aztec shrine.

A day after Juan Diego's canonization ceremony, the pope is to beatify two Indian believers who were martyred in southern Oaxaca state in 1700.


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