Pope Benedict has asked bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean to be faithful and effective missionaries for the Roman Catholic church. In Sao Paulo, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the pope made the call at the start of a regional conference.

Pope Benedict led Mass at a basilica near Sao Paulo, marking the start of the fifth conference of Latin American and Caribbean bishops. Tens of thousands of people traveled to the site for the open-air ceremony, including more than 160 bishops and cardinals from several nations.

Speaking to the crowd, the pontiff said the theme of the conference stresses the need for all church members to be disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ. He also recalled that the Roman Catholic faith has long been the dominant religion in Brazil and the region.

Pope Benedict said this is the faith that made Latin America the continent of hope. He said the church is not a political ideology, a social movement, or an economic system.

The meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean bishops conference is expected to last more than two weeks, as church leaders discuss challenges to the institution across the region. The last meeting was held in 1992 in Dominican Republic, where Pope John Paul called for greater efforts at evangelizing in the face of growing conversions to Protestant sects.

Church officials say they are still working to stop such conversions and find ways to address poverty and other social problems that affect many Catholic faithful.

Pope Benedict is to return to Rome late Sunday, ending his first pastoral visit to the Western hemisphere.