Pope John Paul Says Brazil's Yawning Gap Between Rich and Poor is Major Cause of Nation's Social IllsBy VICTOR L. SIMPSON

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Pope John Paul II met with Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso today in the splendor of a palace after making an unscheduled stop near one of Rio's notorious slums.

The papal motorcade stopped for about four minutes at the edge of the Sumare ``favela,'' or shantytown, where thousands of people _ many of them children _ were lined up hoping to see the pope.

John Paul lowered the window of his gray Alfa Romeo and greeted a number of the people waiting, said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

On arriving a few minutes later at the Palacio Laranjeiras, he was welcomed by the president and his wife. Later today, the pope is to speak to 2,500 bishops from around the world.

After the meeting, Cardoso said they had discussed Brazilian and world problems. He said the pope made an appeal for a more just society, adding that ``the Brazilian government joins this appeal.

``I was happy to see His Holiness speaking Portuguese fluently. He spoke with me the whole time in Portuguese, and with strength,'' Cardoso said. ``Since the last time I saw him, my impression is that he has renewed his energies.''

Earlier this year, Cardoso became the first sitting Brazilian president to visit the pope in the Vatican.

John Paul arrived Thursday afternoon in the world's largest Roman Catholic country and wasted no time in offering his diagnosis of Brazil's social ills.

His strong words belying his frail appearance, the pope condemned the yawning gap between rich and poor in a speech to a welcoming crowd that included Cardoso and other political leaders.

``The unequal and unfair distribution of wealth, the cause of conflicts in the city and the countryside ... the problem of unprotected children in big cities, constitutes an enormous challenge,'' the 77-year-old pope said in Portuguese, Brazil's official language.

Brazil has one of the worst distributions of wealth in the world, with 10 percent of Brazilians holding 65 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 40 percent have just 12 percent. The richest 20 percent also own 88 percent of the country's land.

As the pope addressed well-wishers on the tarmac at Galeao air base on Guanabara Bay, his left hand shook noticeably, the most conspicuous sign of his fragile health. In recent months, his voice also has quavered and he has moved with difficulty, sometimes relying on a cane for support.

Still, the pontiff continues to confound skeptics with his ability to maintain a grueling travel schedule. And in Brazil, the challenge to the pope is especially daunting: preaching the Roman Catholic Church's version of family values _ including its positions on abortion, divorce and birth control _ to a vast but straying Brazilian flock.

After delivering the first of eight speeches he is scheduled to give during his four-day stay, the pope flew by helicopter to the city's center where he entered the popemobile for a two-mile ride.

As the vehicle passed the Candelaria Cathedral _ the site of a 1993 police massacre which left eight street children dead _ young boys, dressed in white and each wearing a plaque with the name of one of the victims, released streams of white balloons.

At the head of the group stood Ricardo Pires, 18, a former street child whose cousin was killed in the massacre. As the pope passed, he released a white dove.

``It was good to see him, I just wished he hadn't passed by so fast,'' Pires said.

The crowd that turned out to greet the pope was smaller than expected, but police provided no estimates.

At the end of President Vargas Avenue, John Paul left the popemobile, entered a bulletproof sedan and headed to the residence of Rio's Cardinal Eugenio Sales, which sits on nearby Sumare mountain amid some of Rio's most dangerous slums.

On Saturday, the pontiff will celebrate Mass for some 5,000 people at the Metropolitan Cathedral and meet with families at Maracana soccer stadium, which holds 100,000 people.

The final event of this trip will be an open air Mass at Flamengo park along Rio's Guanabara Bay, which 2 million people are expected to attend.