MEXICO CITY - Pope John Paul II canonized the first Indian saint of the Americas yesterday during a ceremony laced with emotional tributes to the Western Hemisphere's indigenous roots.
Cheering and weeping, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans lined every inch of the 25-mile route the aged pontiff took in his "popemobile" between the Vatican residence here and the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The pope, appearing alert but extremely weak, has long expressed affection for overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Mexico. He proclaimed sainthood for Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the 16th-century Aztec credited with sparking a religious revolution when he reported seeing a vision of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary on a hilltop in Mexico City in 1531.
The pope urged that Mexico's Indian population - between 10 percent and 14 percent of all Mexicans - receive greater national support. Indians are often the poorest of Mexicans.
"Mexico needs its indigenous people," the pope said to applause, "and the indigenous need Mexico."
The canonization Mass was celebrated inside the cavernous basilica, which sits at the foot of a hill called Tepeyac, where Juan Diego is said to have seen the Virgin and where her original shrine still stands.
The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is said to have spoken tenderly to Juan Diego in his native language, is believed to have helped catalyze the conversion of natives throughout the hemisphere to Christianity during the Spanish colonial era.
"Christ's message, through his mother, took up the central elements of indigenous culture, purified them and gave them the definitive sense of salvation," the pope said in a homily he read in Spanish as he sat on a specially made gilded throne.
In 1999 the pope declared the Virgin of Guadalupe the patron saint of the Americas and bestowed on Mexico a responsibility for spreading the Catholic faith.
During a three-hour ceremony, the 82-year-old pope's voice quivered, he sat stooped and at times his arms trembled. He suffers the symptoms of Parkinson's disease and other ailments.
"Dear brothers and sisters of all the ethnic groups of Mexico and America," the pope told a rapt gathering in the church. "I wish to express the church and the pope's closeness to you, and embrace you with love and offer hope to overcome the difficulties you face."
Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses blew conch shells, shook rattles and beat drums during the canonization. A large portrait of Juan Diego was hoisted on the shoulders of men who carried it to the church's altar.
The Mass culminated in communion distributed to 22,000 worshipers inside the basilica and 78,000 outside it.
Scripture was read in Spanish and in Nuahuatl, the Aztec language that more than 1 million Mexicans speak.
During his homily, the pope said Juan Diego "facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds and became the catalyst for a new Mexican identity."
He also said the Virgin of Guadalupe had a "mestizo," or mixed-race, face. Most Mexicans trace their origins to both European and Indian ancestors.
President Vicente Fox and his family attended the canonization. It was the first time a Mexican president this century has openly attended a publicly celebrated Mass with a pope.
After the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, church activities were severely restricted because of the perception the church sided with the wealthy and usurped power. State relations with the Vatican were fully restored only in the late 1980s.
"It was an extraordinary ceremony," Fox, a devout Catholic, said after the canonization. "Seeing the interior strength of the pope is incredible - how he stands, how he kneels, how he does his readings. He is giving body and soul to Mexico."
Today, the pope ends an 11-day trip to Canada, Guatemala and Mexico. He will beatify two other Mexican Indians before he departs for Rome.
Many in the throng that turned out to see the popular religious leader wept openly because of the great physical effort the pope showed during the canonization. Some said they feared this would be the last time they might see the pontiff, who has now traveled to Mexico five times.
Mexico was the first country the pope visited when he became pontiff 23 years ago.