JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- They came by trains that had traveled all through the night, by buses that yesterday had left black townships before dawn, finally to reach the infield of a suburban horse racing track to celebrate Mass in a mixture of languages and traditions with Pope John Paul II.
After drums pounded out an African rhythm and choirs sang in Zulu, the pope offered a message of peace as he celebrated the public Mass and later offered a message of political activism to religious leaders who met with him at a Johannesburg church.
Only about a third of the 350,000 people who were expected actually came to the outdoor Mass in the suburb called Germiston.
A Zulu dancer dressed in animal skins and carrying a shield and club danced before the Mass, and singers regaled him in Sotho, saying "Paulus, bless us" -- symbolizing the hope by African clergy that the pope will allow greater freedom to incorporate traditional customs into the liturgy.
"The whole church is comforted, and people everywhere rejoice in the change that has come about in South Africa during the last few years," said the pope, who was making his first official visit to South Africa to close a yearlong pan-African synod that has examined the church's role throughout the continent.
"Seeing what is happening here," he said, "men and women of good will hope that in other parts of this continent, too -- and throughout the world -- violence will give way to dialogue and agreement, and the lives of innocent men, women and children will no longer be in danger for reasons which, more often than not, they neither share nor understand."
Pope John Paul, 75, displayed a stern expression during the ceremonies and was seated on a chair constructed to take pressure off his hip, for which he underwent surgery last year. He walked at a noticeably slow gait.
At his meeting in Johannesburg with church leaders, the pope called for an end to the arms trade and asked African states to spend their money instead on the welfare of their people. He condemned the suffering caused by austerity measures that have been forced upon many states by Western donor agencies.
The congregation of 1,000 people at Johannesburg's Cathedral of Christ the King reached out toward the pope as he slowly walked the length of the aisle. Before his arrival, a parish priest appealed to the congregation not to rush to the pontiff because he was frail and tired.
In his address, he condemned Africa's "long, sad history of exploitation in the hands of others."
"Today this situation continues in new forms, including the crushing burden of debts, unjust trading conditions, the dumping of harmful wastes, and the overly demanding conditions imposed by structural adjustment programs," he said.
The service was a cultural melange: A robed choir sang traditional hymns accompanied by an organ, a second choir sang up-tempo Zulu hymns, and marimbas sounded in the background.
The pope's most animated moment came during that walk as he spotted a baby held by a young mother who had positioned herself along the aisle.
The pope stopped, bent down, kissed the child and spoke to the mother as he placed his hand on the baby's head. Twice more he bent down to kiss the baby, and a rare smile played on his face.
He is scheduled to leave today for Kenya.