Pope John Paul II has canonized the first indigenous saint of the Americas in a colorful ceremony in Mexico City.
To the sounds of conch shells, rattles and fervent voices singing in Spanish and the ancient tongue of the Aztecs, Pope John Paul II elevated to sainthood an indigenous figure, Juan Diego, who is believed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the 1500's.
"We declare and define Juan Diego as a saint; we establish that the entire church will honor him among saints," the pontiff said at Mexico City's Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The Catholic Church credits Juan Diego for aiding in the conversion of millions of indigenous people to Christianity during Spain's colonization of the Americas. Historians have said there is virtually no evidence that Juan Diego ever existed.
In his address, Pope John Paul called on Mexicans to support their country's indigenous people in their aspirations and to defend and respect their values. He added that Mexico needs its indigenous people and the people need Mexico.
Mexico City Archbishop Norberto Rivera said the importance of Juan Diego's canonization to the people of Mexico cannot be overstated.
The archbishop said that all ethnic and indigenous groups that have been forgotten and marginalized appreciate this historic act. He said that everyone in this land, but especially the indigenous people, now have a protector in heaven and an example of Christian life.
The Pope's focus on Mexico's indigenous population 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. Observers say the canonization of Juan Diego can be seen as an overture by the Pope to those who have strayed from Catholicism.
The canonization ceremony was televised throughout Mexico and much of the Americas. In Mexico City, hundreds of thousands of Catholic faithful took to the streets to watch the service on giant screens erected in the capital.
The pontiff arrived in Mexico late Tuesday, the final stop of a pilgrimage that took him to Canada and Guatemala. He is to return to Rome Thursday.