JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Kissing the soil of a nation he long scorned, Pope John Paul II ended the Vatican's estrangement from South Africa on Saturday and blessed its abandonment of white-minority rule.
The visit came seven years after the Pope angered apartheid leaders by refusing to kiss the ground when the papal plane was forced to land in the country because of bad weather.
"Today my journey brings me to a new South Africa . . . a 'rainbow nation,' indicating the diversity of races, ethnic groups, languages and culture which characterize it," the Pope said after being greeted at the airport by President Nelson Mandela.
Four orphans representing South Africa's black, white, mixed-race and Indian groups presented the Pope with a basket of earth as he stepped off an airliner as the sun broke through rain clouds.
Since undergoing hip surgery last year, the Pope no longer bends to the tarmac on first-time visits to plant a customary kiss on the ground.
"To say this visit is long overdue is to pay tribute to your own abhorrence of the system of apartheid," said Mandela, wearing a dark suit instead of his usual brightly colored shirt.
Mandela first met the Pope in Rome in 1990, shortly after being released from 27 years in prison under the apartheid government. They met privately Saturday at the presidential guest house in Pretoria, and Mandela said they talked about "nation-building and the role of the religious faithful."
The Pope's African trip--his 67th foreign journey--is mostly to visit clergy to present a papal document on Africa and the Roman Catholic Church's future on the continent. But the South African leg will include one of the festival-like gatherings that the Pope relishes.
Church officials predict 400,000 people will attend an outdoor Mass in a Johannesburg park today. Mandela, a Methodist, was invited to share the altar.
It will be the only opportunity for most South Africans to see the Pope, who has drawn some criticism for not planning to tour the black townships that have come to symbolize the desperation of the nation's blacks.
His arrival Saturday was noticeably subdued. Tight security at the airport kept all but a few hundred well-wishers away, and the papal motorcade route to Pretoria, about 25 miles away, was kept secret. Just a few people waved as it left the airport, and a few demonstrators were kept out of sight.
John Paul arrived from the West African nation of Cameroon, the first stop of his six-day African tour. The Pope is scheduled to leave for Kenya on Monday for a two-day visit before returning to Rome. His next trip is an Oct. 4-7 visit to the United States.