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Pope greeted by crowds upon arrival to Mexico

This is Pope Benedict XVI's first trip to the Latin American country; his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made five trips over the course of his papacy.

By Adrian Gomez Licon and Michael WeissensteinThe Associated Press / March 24, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI is greeted by children as he arrives in Sillao, Mexico for the start of a weeklong trip to Mexico and Cuba.

Gregorio Borgia/AP

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It had become tradition in Mexico. Before daybreak, youths would creep as close as security permitted and serenade their beloved Pope John Paul II with a song of greeting and celebration.

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Now a new, less familiar pope had come, seeking to strengthen his own ties with the largest Spanish-speaking Catholic nation.

So well before dawn Saturday, two dozen youths from a Guadalajara church group gathered near the school where the Pope Benedict XVI was staying. "We sang with all our heart and all our force," said Maria Fernanda de Luna, a member of the group. "It gave us goosebumps to sing 'Las Mananitas' for him."

RELATED: Catholicism in Latin America: 5 key facts

Songs, joyful throngs, church bells and confetti welcomed Benedict as he began his first trip to Mexico, a celebration that seemed to erupt spontaneously out of what had been a thin, sun-dazed crowd.

As Pope Benedict XVI's plane appeared in the shimmering heat of Friday afternoon, people poured from their homes. They packed sidewalks five and six deep, screaming ecstatically as the pope passed, waving slowly. Some burst into tears.

Many had said moments earlier that they could never love a pope as strongly as Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. But the presence of a pope on Mexican soil touched a chord of overwhelming respect and adoration for the papacy itself, the personification for many of the Catholic Church, and God. Thousands found themselves taken aback by their own emotions.

As a girl, Celia del Rosario Escobar, 42, saw John Paul II on one of his five trips to Mexico, which brought him near-universal adoration.

"I was 12 and it's an experience that still makes a deep impression on me," she said. "I thought this would be different, but, no, the experience is the same."

"I can't speak," she murmured, pressing her hands to her chest and starting to cry.

Belief in the goodness and power of the pope runs deep in Guanajuato, the most observantly Catholic state in Mexico, a place of deep social conservatism and the wellspring of an armed uprising against harsh anti-clerical laws in the 1920s. Some in the crowd came for literal healing, a blessing from the pope's passage that would cure illness, or bring them more work. Others sought inspiration, rejuvenation of their faith, energy to be a better parent.

Popes "have a personality, a positive energy. The simple fact of seeing him is a great satisfaction," said Jose Luis Perez Daza, a 47-year-old lawyer from Mexico City who was among thousands pouring off of buses Saturday and trudging three miles (five kilometers) to a sprawling campground in the city of Silao to await Sunday's papal Mass.

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