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On Last Leg of Four-Nation Tour, Pope to Bless Cathedral

February 10, 1996

RAVINE OF THE VIRGIN, Venezuela (AP) _ On the last leg of a seven-day Latin American tour, Pope John Paul II was greeted today at the new Virgin of Coromoto cathedral, reportedly the largest built this century in the Western Hemisphere.

An enthusiastic crowd of about 150,000 welcomed the pope to the hot, rural plains of Venezuela. Many had camped out overnight to see him.

``He’s the greatest,″ said Rodrigo Solis Nunez, 20, who traveled from Chile to witness the pontiff’s blessing of the cathedral.

The church, about 250 miles southwest of Caracas, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and built on the site where she is believed to have appeared before an Indian chief in 1652.

The pope, nearing the end of a four-nation pastoral trip that began in Central America, woke up in the capital Caracas. He traveled by plane to Guanare, about 9 miles from the cathedral, and then by helicopter to the Ravine of the Virgin.

During his two-day trip to Venezuela, the pope has sought to lift the spirits of Venezuelans grappling with economic and political malaise.

``I come with the confidence of finding a church committed to bring about a new evangelization,″ John Paul said Friday evening.

The 75-year-old pontiff arrived in Venezuela on Friday from Guatemala and visited inmates at a jail outside Caracas.

Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera, a devout Catholic, told the pope Friday: ``In your brief stay, you will have the opportunity to see us as we are. ... You know that we have deep social problems. ... Your visit is an encouragement in our hard fight for the welfare of our people.″

Venezuela has changed remarkably _ and not for the better _ during the past 10 to 15 years. The democracy that seemed stable was shaken by two coup attempts in 1992 and the impeachment of president Carlos Andres Perez a year later.

The oil-based economy went sour after the 1970s boom. The church in this traditionally Catholic nation of 22 million is grappling with how to stem the tide toward Protestant conversion _ an estimated 25 percent of all Venezuelans are now Protestants, up from about one percent 15 years ago.

``The church, as with all Venezuelan institutions, is being threatened,″ said the Rev. Jose Maria Erazo. ``Venezuelans don’t believe in anything or anyone any more. They don’t believe in democracy. They don’t believe in the legal system. They’ve lost their faith in institutions.″

Physically frailer than the last time Venezuelans saw him, but mentally robust and as charismatic as ever, the pontiff delivered his remarks in clear and fluent Spanish. Calling himself the ``pilgrim of evangelism,″ the pope was welcomed by affectionate crowds as his popemobile traveled from the airport to downtown Caracas.

His arrival, remarks and the drive were broadcast live by all four Caracas TV stations.

At Catia jail, an overcrowded and violent institution, he told inmates from a highway overpass 300 yards away: ``I know the difficulties you bear, but even in the middle of these, you should remember ... that each one of us is loved always by God.″

The inmates, many standing bare-chested behind iron bars in the tropical heat, waved T-shirts and small Venezuela flags in response.

On Sunday, the pope plans to say Mass at a Caracas airport. More than a million people are expected to attend. A multicolored carpet of 60,000 flowers _ roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, white lilies, hydrangeas, orchids _ was laid out before the alter for the open-air Mass.

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