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Pope to Elevate Indigenous Indian to Sainthood During Visit to Mexico - 2002-07-30

In Mexico, millions of Roman Catholics are eagerly awaiting Tuesday's scheduled arrival of Pope John Paul II. During his visit, the pontiff will elevate to sainthood an indigenous Indian who is believed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the 1500s. The canonization has special significance for Mexico's populace, the vast majority of whom have Indian blood.

A carnival-like atmosphere prevails outside the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, where a dance troupe dressed in Aztec ceremonial garb performs in the mid-day heat. Inside the basilica, a standing room-only crowd attends a special mass looking forward to Pope John Paul II's arrival in Mexico.

It is here that the Pope will canonize Juan Diego, an Indian who is believed to have played a critical role in furthering Catholicism among Mexico's indigenous people in the 1500s. The Virgin Mary, bearing native Indian features, is said to have appeared to Juan Diego and ordered him to build a church. When Juan Diego went to speak with a Spanish bishop, an image of Mary, known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, is said to have appeared miraculously on his cloak.

Sitting on the steps outside the basilica, Enrique Lopez says he is thrilled by the church's decision to recognize an indigenous Indian. He said, "The canonization is very important for us, for our image as Mexicans and that of our land - and it makes us happy."

Cipatec Patl echoes the sentiment. Mr. Patl said, "The canonization is a matter of national pride in that, unfortunately, discrimination has led us to undervalue our indigenous people. And so, with the canonization of Juan Diego, the spirit of the indigenous population will be re-awakened."

Jose Quintana, a priest who made a pilgrimage to Mexico City from the northern state of Durango, says to honor Juan Diego is to honor all Christians of humble origins in the Americas. Father Quintana said, "After 500 years, justice is being done to [Mexico's] humble people who, without reservation, converted to Christianity. The canonization is an act of justice, love and hope."

Yet not everyone believes in the story of Juan Diego. Historians say there is virtually no evidence that he ever existed. They point out that the earliest reference to Juan Diego appears in the writings of a 17th century priest - more than 100 years after Juan Diego is said to have had his vision. Cynics theorize that the figure of Juan Diego was created by the Spanish to aid in the conversion of native Indians to Catholicism.

Questioning Juan Diego's existence is a touchy subject in Mexico, since it casts doubt on the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of Mexico's most-enduring and omnipresent symbols. Father Jose Quintana said, for him, belief in Juan Diego is a matter of faith.

Father Quintana said he has never questioned the existence of Juan Diego. But he adds, if everything were clear and obvious, there would be no need for faith. Father Quintana said, "We are all called to live by our faith, according to God's plan."

Pope John Paul's visit to Mexico comes at a time when many Protestant Christian sects are attracting converts from the ranks of the Catholic faithful in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. In Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, for example, a scant majority of the indigenous population is now Protestant.

Cristina Cabello de Martinez, a Mexico researcher at the University of Texas, said the canonization of Juan Diego can be seen as an overture by the Pope to those who have strayed from Catholicism. She said, "His calling into sainthood brings more people back into the [Catholic] church. If they have wandered off or felt that the church has not listened to their needs, they now feel more of a sense of belonging. [They can say] 'We do have saints that are very much like us, that lived where we live.'"

Indigenous people are to be given priority for entrance to the basilica for Wednesday's canonization. Others will be able to view the ceremony on giant screens outside the basilica and throughout the surrounding neighborhood.