The Pope's Pilgrimage

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/30/2002

GUATEMALA CITY - Pope John Paul II arrived yesterday in this volcano-ringed capital and declared himself "a pilgrim of love and hope" in a nation where the Catholic Church is revered by some and reviled by others for its role during a 36-year civil war.

The ailing 82-year-old pontiff, who had been able to walk up the stairs to his plane in Toronto, used a hydraulic lift to descend from the plane and then a motorized cart to go the few feet to a podium. Using a cane and the arms of two bishops, he eased himself onto a throne, shut his eyes, and clasped his head in what appeared to be complete exhaustion.

Then, under a warm afternoon sun at the start of a 6-mile carpet of flowers leading from the airport to the city center, he addressed a welcoming party of presidents, cardinals, and dignitaries from all of Central America.

"I come here as a pilgrim of love and hope," he said in Spanish. He said he hoped his visit would be "a true moment of grace and renewal for Guatemala" and help the country search for "peace, solidarity, and justice."

The pope's two-day visit, his third to Guatemala, comes at a tense time for the nation's Catholic Church.

Although the civil war ended six years ago with a peace treaty, officials in the church have received an increasing number of death threats in recent months as they have sought to expose atrocities allegedly committed by the nation's military during the conflict.

The tension here is also religious. More than a third of this impoverished country's 13 million people - a greater proportion than anywhere in Latin America - are now Protestant, and some have voiced complaints in recent weeks that the government has spent millions of dollars on the pope's visit.

Still, a crowd estimated at 1 million lined the route from the airport yesterday, waving yellow and white Vatican flags, blowing kisses, and screaming with elation "Juan Pablo, Juan Pablo" as the pope slowly passed, waving from his glass-encased popemobile.

"For too long, there has been confrontation and division in our country," said the Rev. Juan Carlos Cordova, a spokesman for the Guatemala City Archdiocese. "The pope is bringing a message of peace - that the conflict has to stop and solutions must be found to prevent any resumption of war."

The pope's first visited Guatemala in 1983, at the height of the civil war, when entire villages were being wiped out in the fighting. Many here credit the pope's second visit, six years ago, with helping push the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government to make peace. But the peace hasn't stopped all the intimidation and killing after the region's bloodiest war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives from 1960 to 1996.

Even after the peace accord, the church has been targeted. In 1998, Juan Gerardi Conedera, a senior bishop, was murdered shortly after publishing a report that pinned nearly all the blame of war crimes on the nation's military and pro government paramilitary groups.

In recent weeks, death threats have been leveled against a bishop, six priests, and officials in the church human rights office. In February, a Catholic church that contained records and equipment to analyze the remains of massacre victims was burned to the ground. And last week, after a spate of vandalism at churches and human rights offices, shots were fired at the courthouses where three military officers were appealing their convictions in Gerardi Conedera's death.

Sparking fears that the civil war could re-ignite, paramilitary members in June took over all the roads in a northern province to demand back pay for their wartime service. The ruling party, led by some of the men who ruled during the most bloody phases of the civil war, promised to consider a new national tax to raise $2,500 per paramilitary member.

The heart of the pope's visit is the creation today of Central America's first saint, Pedro de San Jose Betancur, a 17th-century Franciscan friar who was beatified two decades ago for establishing a hospital in Guatemala's old capital that treated poor Mayan Indians, prisoners, abandoned children, and the handicapped.

All around the capital, posters of the pope and "Hermano Pedro" - who the Vatican says cured people of terminal diseases - hung from lampposts, homes, and stores shuttered for the duration of John Paul's visit.

"I'm sure the pope is aware of the state of the country and wants to keep the government on the road to peace, but the prime motive of his trip is evangelical," said Stephen Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. "He's trying to spread the faith in a country where more and more people are leaving for Protestantism."

To some Protestants, however, the canonization is a thinly veiled effort at blunting their gains.

"There's no doubt he's trying to convert people, and we see this whole visit as a sad situation," said David Munguia, president of the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemala. "I'm worried his visit will just divide the people."

"What I want to know," said Ingrid Pirir, 24, a teacher at the Evangelical Church of New Jerusalem in Guatamala City, "is this: Where's the government getting the money to spend millions of dollars on one man when so many are suffering in this country?"

Not all Protestants, however, view the pope with hostility. As long as he talks about peace and respects their faiths, they say they don't mind his visits.

"Yes, we are different and we don't take our cues from the Vatican, but we don't feel any bad feelings toward the pope," said Julio Cesar Paz, pastor of La Iglegia Evengelica Central, which 120 years ago became the first Presbyterian church to open in Guatemala. "We think he's a good man and can help this country."

Along the route to the city yesterday, the throngs had wanted simply to get a glimpse of the pope. As vendors sold key chains, balloons, and T-shirts emblazoned with the pope's image, more than 1 million people jostled for front-row spots to see the ailing man in the white mozzetta.

Sprinkling water to mat down a section of the elegant carpet of pine needles, chrysanthemums, geraniums, and colored sawdust, Patricia de Morales was beaming.

"This is so beautiful for us, that he chose to visit us again in the last years of his life," said Morales, 39, who arrived like countless others before dawn to arrange the carpet. "This is just really huge for all of Guatemala."

The pope, who is on an 11-day tour of the Americas, flies to Mexico today following Mass.

David Abel can be reached at


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/31/2002

GUATEMALA CITY - Pope John Paul II, nearly overcome by weariness, canonized a 17th century Spanish missionary as Central America's first saint yesterday during a Mass before half a million jubilant Roman Catholics.

When he spoke, the pontiff's Spanish was slurred and he took long pauses. The pauses were met with near silence.

But when John Paul, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, arthritis, and knee and hip ailments, finished canonizing Pedro de San Jose Betancur, the crowd at the old racetrack erupted. The Guatemalans waved flags, sent balloons aloft, and chanted their love for the pope.

"The new saint represents an urgent appeal to practice mercy in modern society, especially when so many are hoping for a helping hand," the 82-year-old pontiff told followers who skipped sleep Monday night to secure a spot in the stadium. "I am convinced of the present day importance of his message. He was truly a brother to all who lived in misfortune."

The pope's elevation of Betancur was his 463d of his nearly 24-year papacy. "Father Pedro" ministered to prisoners, Indians, orphans, and the poor. He also founded the world's first hospital for convalescents, and established the House of Our Lady of Bethlehem, which grew into the Bethlemite religious order.

"We can't find the adequate words to say what this miracle of love and happiness means for Guatemala," said Guatemala's archbishop, Rodolfo Quezada.

The pope, who left Guatemala for Mexico yesterday after only 25 hours in this smoggy, volcano-ringed capital, rode around the stadium in his popemobile. Then he used a motorized cart and the help of several bishops to take his seat on an ornate throne in front of a flower-draped altar for the Mass.

Also at the Mass, Quezada pronounced Juan Jose Gerardi a martyr. Gerardi, a Guatemalan bishop, was bludgeoned to death in 1998 after blaming the military for the majority of war crimes during the nation's 36-year civil war.

The majority of the 200,000 who died during the civil war were indigenous Guatemalans. The Indians appeared to be the majority at yesterday's Mass, and the applause was loudest when John Paul told them:

"The pope does not forget you and, admiring the values of your cultures, encourages you to overcome with hope the sometimes difficult situations you experience. . . . You deserve all the respect and have the right to fulfill yourselves completely, in justice, integral development, and peace."

The message resonated with Delores Jochola Patzun, 39, who with 12 family members arrived at the stadium Monday afternoon from a small town along the Pacific coast. None of the family had slept, but they watched every expression of the pontiff and they only had praise for him. "We're very lucky to have him visiting Guatemala for the third time," she said. "And we thank him very much for giving us this saint."

Although they don't doubt his benevolence, some question the value of making Betancur a saint in 21st century Guatemala. "Guatemalans today could use a saint more in tune with their own times," said Catherine M. Mooney, a Guatemala specialist who teaches at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Some among this nation's growing number of Protestants say that the canonization was a thinly veiled attempt to blunt their evangelical efforts.

Regardless, the ceremony yesterday brought much of this nation of 13 million to a standstill. Stores across the capital were shuttered. Schools and offices closed around the country. And local television stations broadcast the pope's words live.

As a gesture of good will on behalf of a request by the pope, Guatemala's president, Alfonso Portillo, sent a proposal to Congress on Monday to eliminate the country's death penalty. There are 36 people on death row.

For some, the pontiff's visit was tinged with sadness as they worried that they may never again see him. "We love him - he has been very good to Guatemala," said Juventina de Batreiz, 40, noting the pope's help in pushing the country toward peace in 1996.

Just as the pontiff was finishing his remarks - saying, "Guatemala, I carry you in my heart" - there came a sign that many in the crowd took as a devine signal. Appearing like a halo, a rainbow made a complete circle around the noontime sun.

"It's a miracle," Maria Escobar, 42, said as she left the stadium with her husband. "What else more could we ask for?"

David Abel can be reached at


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  8/01/2002

MEXICO CITY - They hung from trees, crowded onto rooftops and balconies, and some scuffled for front-row views along the boulevards of this massive city.

Walking, hitching rides, and flying in from all over this staunchly Catholic country, more than 4 million people thronged into the streets to glimpse Pope John Paul II, bringing much of this smoggy, car-choked capital to a standstill. The pontiff waved wearily to onlookers as his motorcade brought him to and from the Basilica of Guadalupe, where he canonized the Americas' first indigenous saint.

Maria Morales spent hours crammed into a small truck traveling from a northern state. Though she arrived a day before and hoped to attend the Mass yesterday, the 35-year-old robed nun wasn't one of the 22,000 able to enter the sprawling basilica.
Instead, with millions of others, she took a yellow and white Vatican flag and settled for a spot along the 10-mile path the pope took from the basilica to the capital's apostolic nunciature.

"It was quick, but it was definitely worth the trip," said Morales, after the popemobile passed her, moving more quickly than it had on other visits, she and others said. "Just to see him - that's all I wanted."

The city organized more than 200,000 volunteers and some 35,000 police officers to keep the streets clear as the pope made his way around Mexico City, police officials said. Government workers planted flowers, spruced up battered streets with fresh paint, and erected large screens at closed-off intersections around the city to let people watch the pope's Mass.

At one intersection along Paseo de la Reforma, the city's principal thoroughfare, about 5,000 people wept, sang, and chanted: "Juan Pablo Segundo, te quiere todo el mundo," telling the pope: "The whole world loves you."

Both before and after the pope drove past, the crowd was jubilant, as if in the midst of a fiesta. People danced, listened to mariachi bands, and they sold everything from tamales and peanuts to CDs, posters, and T-shirts with the pope's image.

"This visit - probably his last visit to Mexico, unless God sends him back - gives us all a lot of happiness," said Heriberto Castaneda, 48, who has seen the pope each of the five times he has visited this nation since his first trip here in 1979.

Most onlookers just wanted to get a look at the pope during his 42-hour visit on the third and final leg of an 11-day journey that also took him to Canada and Guatemala, where he canonized Central America's first saint on Tuesday.

Some Catholics have criticized the Vatican's decision to canonize Juan Diego, a 16th century Aztec Indian who is said to have seen the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, in 1531. Skeptics complain that Juan Diego's vision was an invention of the Catholic Church to help it proselytize among natives after the Spanish conquest.

Still, pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe hang in nearly every home and from the rear-view mirrors of many cars, a symbol of the role the image has played in securing Catholicism's hold on Mexico.

For Ophelia Retez, the canonization of Juan Diego was a statement that surpassed everything the pope has said and done. The 52-year-old, most of whose family is indigenous, said the pope was recognizing a population that has long suffered from discrimination in Mexico.

"This is really huge for us," she said after blowing kisses as the pope zipped by yesterday. "He has touched this country very deeply, and especially the Indians. We will never forget him."

David Abel can be reached at

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