SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Pope John Paul II left the Dominican Republic for Rome Wednesday after calling for Latin American integration during a farewell ceremony.
On the sixth and final day of his trip to the Dominican Republic, 500 years after European colonization, the pontiff said closer political and economic ties would help prepare Latin America for the future.
'The future presents, certainly, a great challenge to the creative capacity and desire for understanding among the peoples that make up the great Latin American family,' the pope said at a brief ceremony at Santo Domingo's international airport.
'I ask God that this fifth centennial become the beginning of the process of Latin American integration that allows the nations of the continent to take their proper place on the international stage,' he said.
The pope then boarded his private Alitalia flight for Italy, which was to arrive late Wednesday at Rome's Ciampino military airport.
During his visit to this poor Caribbean island -- Europe's first colony in the new world -- the pontiff celebrated the arrival of Christianity in the Americas 500 years ago and opened the fourth Latin American Bishops Conference, which runs through the month.
His two open-air masses, at a monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo and in the rural community of Higuey, were attended by thousands of the faithful in this mostly Catholic nation. Crowds lined the streets during his short trips in the 'popemobile.'
But John Paul II was criticized by liberal Catholic groups for saying Sunday mass at the eight-story lighthouse monument to Columbus, a pet project of Dominican President Joaquin Balaguer.
Critics said the monument cost tens of millions of dollars that would have been better used to help the poor, and that its construction resulted in the displacement of hundreds of poor families.
They also said Columbus was a divisive figure in Latin America, since he and his followers brought suffering and death to the Americas.
The pope barely mentioned Columbus, however, and distanced itself from the Domincan government's highly trumpeted celebrations of 'the great admiral's' arrival to the island in December, 1492.
Liberal Catholic priests said they were also disappointed with the pontiff's inauguration discourse Monday at the bishops conference.
They said the pope's implied criticism of socially active priests and stress on the church's spiritual role in Latin America came in contrast to the previous two bishops conferences, in 1968 and 1979, where 'liberation theology' was born and nurtured.
Still, the pope renewed the church's 'preferential option in favor of the poor' and talked extensively about the need to combat the grinding poverty suffered by the majority of Latin Americans.
The pontiff also proposed a conference to be attended by bishops from all of the Americas, which would include those from the United States and Canada.
This was the pope's third trip to the Dominican Republic, his 56th foreign journey since assuming the church's highest post in late 1978 and his first since a July 15 operation to remove a benign tumor in his colon.
John Paul II sometimes looked tired during his visit to the Dominican Republic but maintained a fairly busy schedule and did not falter during his 12-page discourse to the bishops conference.
His surgery forced him to cancel planned stopovers at an Indian community in southern Mexico and in Jamaica and Nicaragua.
Latin America is home to nearly half of the world's 900 million Catholics and the bishops conference in Santo Domingo is to set the church's direction in the region.