MEXICO CITY – Pope John Paul II bid farewell to an emotional Mexico on Thursday after a visit in which politicians broke the century-old taboo of openly practicing their religion and the pontiff focused on Indian believers.
"Mexico, Mexico, beautiful Mexico, God bless you!" the Roman Catholic leader said in his final words before departing.
More than a million people lined John Paul's route from the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where he gave his brief goodbye, to the Mexico City airport in what could be his last visit to this country.
Clearly tired after 11 days on the road, the pope walked up the staircase to a specially equipped AeroMéxico jet and said goodbye to a country that was part of his first papal trip outside Italy in 1979.
"I'm going, but I'm also staying behind," said John Paul, 82, as he completed his tour of Canada, Guatemala and Mexico. His deteriorating health, including knee and hip problems and Parkinson's disease, had put his trip – and his fifth visit to Mexico – in doubt.
The pope's plane circled Mexico City for 15 minutes as people on the ground used mirrors to reflect the afternoon sun toward the aircraft. His departure to Rome was broadcast live on television, as were all his appearances here.
Many Mexicans made a special effort to get a brief, personal glimpse of the pope.
"I want him to stay with us. He's Mexican now! This is so sad because I'm afraid I will not see him again," said a weeping Mercedes Peña Flores, 70, who uses a wheelchair. She attended a brief farewell ceremony at the airport.
"For me, this pope is a saint, greater than all the other saints for what he's done for us and this country," she said.
President Vicente Fox, in a show of deference to the church, kissed the pope's ring Tuesday. His political opponents sharply criticized the gesture.
The pontiff called on Mexico and the rest of Latin America to reach out to the region's millions of Indians, who face poverty and discrimination.
Mr. Fox urged Mexicans to take the pope's message to heart.
"This visit leaves a lot for us Mexicans," Mr. Fox said. "It leaves a commitment to work together for the poorest people, for those left out, for those excluded from development. It also leaves a renewed commitment with indigenous communities."
Some social commentators recalled that previous papal visits seemed to have little lasting effect on this modern country. Some 80 percent of the population are nominally Catholic, but many people only attend Mass for weddings, funerals and baptisms.
"Nobody can deny the enthusiasm the pope's visit has generated, but that enthusiasm does not necessarily transform itself into a modification of Mexicans' behavior," wrote Sergio Sarmiento, in his column in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.
"Will indigenous people now receive more respect?" Mr. Sarmineto asked. "Will people who abuse them remember John Paul's words. ...?"
Mr. Fox lavished attention on the pope during his three days in Mexico City. That marked a sharp and controversial departure from the approach of previous Mexican presidents, who maintained an official church-state antagonism that goes back 150 years.
President Ernesto Zedillo greeted John Paul at the airport on the pontiff's most recent visit to Mexico in 1999, but the leader did not attend any of the pope's events.
In 1979, President José Luis Portillo asked John Paul to hold a secret Mass at the presidential residence. But for years he denied that it took place.
By contrast, in addition to kissing the pope's ring, Mr. Fox attended the Wednesday Mass devoted to the sainthood of an Indian messenger, Juan Diego.
Mr. Fox is a member of the conservative, Catholic-oriented National Action Party. Two years ago, he ended the 71-year reign of a severely secular party that for decades prohibited clergymen from voting and did not formally recognize the Vatican as a state until the 1990s.
This time, however, other politicians followed Mr. Fox's example.
Leaders from all three major political parties publicly greeted the pope with their families in tow.
Arturo Montiel, the governor of the state of Mexico and a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which Mr. Fox unseated, spent a long moment kneeling before the pope with his mother.
According to a Reforma telephone poll of 461 people, 60 percent of those surveyed approved of Mr. Fox's kiss of the papal ring, while 23 percent disapproved. Seventeen percent didn't know how to respond. The poll had a margin of error of 4.6 percent.
Still, other politicians frowned. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, greeted the pope Wednesday morning but left the Basilica of Guadalupe before Mass began.
"I think faith, religion and beliefs are intimate, personal," said Mr. López Obrador, a member of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. "As authorities, we have to act in a republican manner. I'm Christian, but I'm also republican."Earlier Thursday, John Paul beatified two indigenous martyrs, continuing a three-day effort to reach out to Latin America's Indians.
The pope elevated Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles to beatification, a step below sainthood within the Catholic Church.
"These two Christian indigenous men, irreproachable in their personal and family lives, suffered martyrdom for their faithfulness to the Catholic faith," he said..
The two-hour beatification ceremony featured numerous flourishes of indigenous clothing, languages and art. It came a day after John Paul celebrated the canonization of the Roman Catholic Church's first indigenous saint from the Americas, Juan Diego, who is credited with witnessing the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patroness, in 1531.
At Thursday's ceremony, the pope tapped his fingers during a "Feather Dance" performed by indigenous dancers, and he appeared on the verge of tears at several points in the ceremony.
He also called on Indians, who in recent decades have converted in droves to evangelical Protestantism, to maintain their Catholic faith and their indigenous identity.
The drama of Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles began on Sept. 14, 1700, according to church officials.
The two men discovered their fellow townspeople in San Francisco de los Cajonos, Oaxaca, celebrating the rites of their old indigenous religion.
They told Catholic priests what they had seen, and the priests broke up the indigenous prayer meeting.
The next day, the townspeople took the two men prisoner. They killed them with machete blows after offering them a chance to live if they would renounce Catholicism.
Critics have said Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles were little more than snitches who betrayed their fellow townspeople after years of armed persecution by the Spanish and forced conversions to Catholicism.
But the painful moments of the church's conquest of indigenous people's souls were forgotten Thursday as the pope embraced and celebrated the poorest believers.
"They're a model for people who, in small villages or great social structures, have the duty to favor the common good," the pope said.