Published: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
MEXICO CITY - As feathered Aztec dancers and robed Catholic clergy moved through an incense-filled basilica, Pope John Paul II canonized the first Indian saint in the Americas on Wednesday, using the ceremony to urge Mexicans to help its large Indian population.
More than 1 million believers cheered and wept in the streets outside as the pope called Juan Diego a catalyst in the conversion of millions of Indians to Christianity.
The frail 82-year-old pope, nearing the end of an 11-day pilgrimage that began in Canada, looked weary during the three-hour canonization Mass, often stuttering but speaking in a reasonably firm voice.
Although some question whether the 16th-century Juan Diego actually existed, John Paul stressed his importance as a man who helped the worlds of Spain's conquistadors and Mexico's native peoples come together. But the pope made clear the indigenous - 10 percent of the population - have been let down by Mexican society.
"Mexico needs its indigenous peoples and these people need Mexico," John Paul declared, setting an agenda for his church, which is battling inroads among Indians by evangelical Protestants.
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.
"Christ's message, through his mother, took up the central elements of indigenous culture, purified them and gave them the definitive sense of salvation," John Paul said, his face reddening after a series of open-air Masses.
"He facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds and became the catalyst for a new Mexican identity."
Following up on remarks Tuesday in Guatemala, the pontiff appealed for better treatment for Indians in the Americas. He asked Mexicans to help create "greater justice and solidarity" for all, and to "support the indigenous peoples in their legitimate aspirations, respecting and defending the authentic values of each ethnic group."
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