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Mexico spends millions to greet pope

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Fri March 23, 2012
  • NEW: Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive in Mexico's Guanajuato state Friday afternoon
  • The local government has spent nearly $11 million preparing for the visit
  • Hundreds of thousands of parishioners are expected for Sunday's mass
  • Visitors will spend roughly $80 million in meals, transportation, shopping and lodging

(CNN) -- It has been a project of celestial proportions, but it's finally ready. Construction workers have labored nonstop for months.

Their mission? To build an altar worthy of a pope and an outdoor venue that can accommodate as many as 700,000 people.

The altar where Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate Mass on Sunday is located at Bicentennial Park in Mexico's Guanajuato state, the heartland of Mexican Catholicism. Guanajuato has the highest percentage of Catholics in Mexico at well over 90 percent.

Benedict is expected to arrive at 4:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m. ET) Friday at Guanajuato's International Airport.

The nation's Catholics have been waiting for a papal visit since Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy in 2005. President Felipe Calderon invited the pontiff to Mexico when they met in Vatican City in 2007 and then again in May of last year when Juan Diego, a Mexican Indian, was canonized.

Juan Diego is said to have witnessed the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531 in what is now Mexico City.

Jorge Raul Villegas, spokesman at the Leon Archdiocese, which is hosting the papal visit, said church officials are expecting hundreds of thousands of parishioners.

Benedicto XVI en América Latina
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"We have already received people from states throughout Mexico and also from other countries, North and South America. We've had requests from people with an open spirit and anxious to meet Pope Benedict," Villegas said.

Guanajuato state officials said the government has spent nearly $11 million preparing for the visit.

The Mexican Catholic Church hired Jesus Guerrero Santos, a renowned Mexican artist from the state of Jalisco, to design the altar to be used at the Mass. Guerrero Santos has been working for months to create the symbolic artwork to celebrate the occasion. In his workshop he said he's using nickel silver and ceramics as raw materials for the altar.

The money also has been used on beautification projects, multiple billboards that herald the special celebration and infrastructure improvements. Mariachi bands have also been hired to serenade the pontiff at his arrival.

Rogelio Martinez Caballero, a director at Bicentennial Park, says much planning has gone into preparing for the arrival of the pope.

"We are coordinating at the three levels of governments and security with the presidential guard," Martinez said. "We're also coordinating with the surrounding municipalities to have strategic points under control with the help of civil protection authorities and the Red Cross as well."

Even the drug cartels have promised to cooperate, officials say, hanging banners pledging to "keep the peace" for the pontiff's stay.

The pope's visit will be a blessing for Mexico in more ways than one.

The Mexican National Confederation of Tourism estimates that 540,000 people -- in addition to the locals who will attend the Mass -- will travel to Guanajuato. Visitors will spend roughly $80 million in meals, transportation, shopping and lodging, according to the confederation.

Tourism officials hope the papal visit will put Guanajuato state on the map.

The capital of the state, also called Guanajuato, has long been admired for its rich history and colonial architecture.

The pope will leave Mexico Monday for Cuba, where his three-day trip will include two large public Masses.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council accused Cuban authorities Monday of using "tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent" as the pope's visit nears, following arrests of dissidents and demonstrators.

CNN en espanol¹s Krupskaia Alis in Guanajuato contributed to this report

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