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Guatemalans Await Arrival of Pope

Guatemala's faithful are anxiously awaiting the upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II - his third here, but considered a very special one. On July 30, the pope will canonize Brother Pedro de Betancur, a 17th century missionary who will be Central America's first saint.

A priest gives mass to a standing-room-only crowd in the San Francisco Church in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala. In the weeks leading up to the pope's visit, the church, which houses the tomb of Brother Pedro de Betancur, has been flooded with visitors. Friar Edwin Alvarado is in charge of the canonization activities here.

He says that, because of the overwhelming crowds, the church has started giving five masses on Sunday. Even then the church was so packed, church workers had to add benches and pull-up plastic chairs to accommodate the crowds.

After arriving here in the mid-17th century as a missionary, Brother Pedro founded the first free hospital in Guatemala, the first free school and became the nation's first literacy instructor. He is known here a man who provided healthcare to the poor and performed miracles by curing people of sickness even after his death.

Many of Guatemala's faithful come to the tomb of Brother Pedro before operations to ask for him to protect them and keep them alive. In a museum in the back of the church the walls are adorned with crutches, photos, plaques and letters of thanks from thousands of faithful who attribute miracles to Brother Pedro.

In the weeks prior to the pope's arrival, the visits to Brother Pedro's tomb have skyrocketed. Hector Ruano comes here regularly to thank Brother Pedro for giving him his health. Some years ago, he says, he had a complicated and experimental heart surgery that doctors didn't think he'd survive. But today he is healthy and attributes it to Brother Pedro.

He says he wasn't always devoted to Brother Pedro, but ever since he heard a voice telling him that Brother Pedro was going to keep him alive, he started coming regularly to pray at his tomb. Since then, he says, his health has improved so incredibly that it has left doctors scratching their heads and calling him a living miracle.

But not all miracles attributed to Brother Pedro are health-related, as Ana Maria Barrera explains after kneeling at his tomb to pray and give thanks. She says that a woman whom her family didn't know got involved with her son, causing him to call off his engagement with his girlfriend of five years. Ms. Barrera says she started to come here to pray to Brother Pedro, asking him to get them back together. Soon after, and thanks to Brother Pedro, she says, her son married his longtime girlfriend.

A thousand worshippers from a Guatemala City parish shout long live the pope during a pilgrimage through Antigua's cobblestone streets. Many here hope that Brother Pedro will give strength to the frail pope on what is expected to be an exhausting trip. Church officials, like Friar Alvarado, also hope that the canonization will serve to breathe new life into the legacy of Brother Pedro's work in healthcare and education.

He says the celebration of the canonization of Brother Pedro will be complete if his message is renewed, taken seriously and practiced in Guatemala.

Guatemala's illiteracy rate is one of the highest in Latin America, second only to Haiti, and it is one of the countries in the region with the lowest combined public and private spending in healthcare.