BY JEREMY MCDERMOTT, LATIN AMERICA CORRESPONDENT
HALF OF the world's Catholics live in Latin America, yet even here the flock is being poached. The visit of Pope John Paul H to Mexico and Guatemala might put a stop to all that.
Indigenous Indians are the group that have been deserting the Church in increasing numbers to Protestant evangelical churches, which they believe better reflect the economic and racial oppression they have suffered and continue to suffer throughout Latin America. There was an Indian armed uprising in southern Mexico in 1994 and armed rebels still live in the dense forests of Chiapas province, whilst during Guatemala's bloody 30-year civil war most of the 200,000 people killed were indigenous Maya Indians.
One of those canonised by the Pope was the first American indigenous Indian saint, and the two 17th-century martyrs, Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles, who were beatified, were Zapotec Indians.
Pope John Paul II appealed directly to Mexico and Guatemala's millions of Indians praising both countries' "rich mix of cultures", and encouraging "indigenous peoples today to appreciate their culture and languages, and above all their dignity as children of God".
The Pope's first stop after Canada was Guatemala, still struggling to heal the wounds of the civil war, opened again in 1998 when Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi was murdered by members of the military after he released a report blaming the army for most of the massacres and human rights abuses during the fighting. During his short visit to the country, in the historic city of Antigua nestling amid volcanic peaks, Pope John Paul canonised Spaniard Pedro de Betancur, a 17th century Franciscan brother, as Guatemala's first saint.
"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.
But the Pope's legacy to Guatemala might be yet more profound. Days before the Pope's visit, the Vatican delivered a letter to President Alfonso Portillo, requesting a moratorium on executions. Within hours of the Pope's arrival Mr Portillo went one better, formally asking Congress to abolish capital punishment.
The next stop was Mexico, the second most populous Catholic nation on earth after Brazil, and the canonisation of Juan Diego, who saw a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531, touched the very heart of Mexico's identity.
The Virgin is the country's patron saint and her basilica in Guadalupe is the second most visited pilgrimage site after St Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The papal mass in Guadalupe basilica was rich with indigenous imagery. It was read in Spanish and seven indigenous languages, whilst the Pope wore a woven Indian sash over his vestments and indigenous women brushed him with incense-scented herbs, an ancient practice designed to keep away illness and evil.
Mexico was the destination for the Pope's first ever foreign trip in 1979 and this was his fifth and, many predict, last visit. His three days in Mexico on this trip overthrew scandals about child abuse and the widening differences between Mexican society and the Vatican on issues like abortion, birth control and divorce. With his charisma and presence the Pope spiritually invigorated the millions that turned out to see him.
"I go, but I am not absent. I go, but my heart remains with you," said the frail Pope, struggling to keep his head up during the three-hour service in the Basilica.
"I don't think we will ever see him again," Javier Luis Soto, 40, said as the Pope's bullet-proof car drove past. "I just had to be near him, even if it was just for one second. We are going to feel a tremendous void without his presence."