Central America's 1st saint is canonized in Guatemala

Hundreds of thousands profess faith, adoration for pope at open-air Mass


GUATEMALA CITY - Pope John Paul II canonized Central America's first saint yesterday at a Mass that drew attention to both the Roman Catholic Church's struggle for human rights in this troubled nation and the church's concern over Protestant evangelization of indigenous people in Latin America.

As hundreds of thousands of Catholics at an outdoor race track sang, cheered and waved brightly colored flags, the pope praised Pedro de San Jose Betancur, a 17th-century Spanish missionary, as someone who endured hardship to care for the sick and the poor in Guatemala.

"The new saint, traveling with only his faith and his confidence in God, sailed across the Atlantic to care for the poor and indigenous people of America, first in Cuba, then in Honduras and finally in this blessed land of Guatemala," he said in Spanish, according to the official Vatican translation of his remarks.

That was the first of two mentions of indigenous people by the pope, who went on to say, "I would also like to express my appreciation and closeness to the many indigenous people.

"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."

But when he spoke of the new saint, he was speaking to all of Guatemala, which endured a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 but is still menaced by violence. He said that the missionary's example "should inspire in Christians and in all citizens a desire to transform the human community into a great family, in which social, political and economic relations may be worthy of man."

Church officials have long expressed concern about the drastically uneven distribution of wealth in Guatemala, where more than 80 percent of the people live in poverty.

But the church's larger role has been to apply pressure, along with other human rights advocates, to investigate and expose the government's hand in the killings and disappearances of many Guatemalans during the country's internal conflict.

Not all Guatemalans say that the Roman Catholic Church has been a force for good here. The pope's past statements against the efforts of evangelical Protestants infuriated some evangelicals, who openly called him "the Antichrist" during his previous visit in 1996.

Moreover, the pope's outreach to indigenous people - which continues in Mexico, where he will canonize one indigenous person and beatify two others - has not been free of conflict. Some people maintain that the new saint he is canonizing in Mexico never existed.

But the greeting that the pope was given yesterday could not have been warmer as worshipers peppered the ceremony with cheers of love and support.

Betancur became the 463rd saint to be made by this pope, who has demonstrated a greater passion for canonization than perhaps any of his predecessors.

The new saint, born in the Canary Islands in 1619, had an interesting history. After coming to Guatemala, he failed in his studies to become a priest, and when he was admitted to the Franciscan order, it was as a gardener and janitor. He preached to prison inmates and, at night, walked the streets and rang a bell as he sought donations for orphans.

As the pope pronounced him a saint yesterday, someone rang a bell that Betancur once used.

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