GUATEMALA CITY – Stopping often to catch his breath, an exhausted Pope John Paul II canonized Central America's first saint Tuesday and encouraged hundreds of thousands of cheering Guatemalans to struggle for human rights in a nation bloodied by 36 years of war.
In a voice that at first was relatively clear but then slurred as the pope grew weary, John Paul said the new saint, Pedro de San Jose Betancur, "represents an urgent appeal to practice mercy in modern society, especially when so many are hoping for a helping hand."
The pope said Indians, targeted by state forces during a 1960-1996 war that killed 200,000 people, deserve "justice, integral development and peace." The fears of death squads, midnight arrests and massacres continue to haunt the nation, where Indians account for roughly 60 percent of the population.
"The pope does not forget you and, admiring the values of your cultures, encourages you to overcome with hope the sometimes difficult situations you experience," he said to the many Mayan Indians at the ceremony.
All of Central America's heads of state -- from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama -- and the president of the Dominican Republic also were in the audience.
Later Tuesday, the pope managed to climb up the stairs to his plane, an aide grasping his left arm. But he used a hydraulic lift to get off the plane in Mexico, as he has on most trips since May. The pope appeared exhausted in Mexico City, his voice trembling and words slurred as he urged Mexicans not to abandon their faith.
The pope planned Wednesday to canonize Juan Diego, the Catholic church's first Indian saint, known for his vision of an olive-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531. John Paul also will beatify two Mexican Indians martyred in 1700, placing them a step from sainthood, during his 11-day trip.
Canonization is the process by which the Roman Catholic church declares someone a saint. The church usually requires that saints died as martyrs to the faith or performed certified miracles.
"Latin America has suffered so much, but the pope shows us that each day is precious," said Juanita Bolanos, who traveled with her church group from Colombia, a country plagued by its own 38-year civil war. "Each word and breath is important."
The pope praised the life of Betancur, known affectionately here as Brother Pedro, the 463rd saint he has canonized. He called on the faithful to follow the example of Betancur, a 17th-century missionary who dedicated his life to helping prisoners, abandoned children and the sick in Guatemala.
During Tuesday's Mass, the pope gave communion to 22-year-old Adalberto Gonzalez. The Vatican says Gonzalez was cured of lymphoma 17 years ago after he prayed to Betancur and carried a medallion that supposedly contained a piece of the saint's clothing.
Speaking to followers gathered at the military airport where his plane landed Monday, the pope said Guatemalans are "anxious for peace, solidarity and justice."
Months after his visit to Guatemala in 1996, both sides signed an accord ending the war, with many crediting the pontiff for pushing the country toward peace.
Yet violence and human rights abuses still plague Guatemala, and even the church has struggled with the country's newfound peace. Former Guatemalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in 1998, two days after accusing the military of human rights abuses during the war.
At the start of Tuesday's Mass, Archbishop Rodolfo Quezada called Gerardi a martyr.
Paula Batz, a Mayan Indian who waited all night for a seat at the racetrack where the Mass was held, said she was glad the pope was continuing to fight for stability and human rights in her country. She believes government officials kidnapped and killed her husband during the war.
"Only the blessed pope could be capable of reuniting a country so divided and in terrible conflict," Batz said.
The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said John Paul was "very pleased" that Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo on Monday proposed eliminating the country's death penalty. Portillo's spokesman, Byron Barrera, said the pope specifically requested the action.
Guatemala, which has televised executions and repeatedly refused papal requests to abolish the punishment, has 36 convicts on death row.
A Vatican representative also met with Belize and Guatemala officials late Monday attempting to resolve a long-standing border dispute between the two countries.