Pope John Paul II arrived in Venezuela to a 21-gun salute and began his sixth visit to Latin America, home to about half the world's Catholics.

"In this important and delicate moment of Latin American and Venezuelan history, I would like to give impetus, with my presence, to the objectives of renewal, which should be translated into new goals toward the recovery of family integration . . . more social justice, the search for new initiatives in the field of education, work and civic coexistence," the pope said in a brief airport speech.

Minutes before, Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi, in an allusion to the Contadora negotiations on Central America, said the pope's presence brought hope for dialogue and peace.

The pontiff, the first to visit Venezuela, walked down a red carpet flanked by military units dressed in bottle green Prussian-style uniforms with white-plumed, spiked helmets. He mingled with a carefully screened airport crowd and kissed a small girl, who burst into tears, before he was whisked away in his bulletproof vehicle.

Crowds already had begun to gather before a two-story altar under a huge cross in the Montalban suburb of Caracas, where the pope will celebrate a mass before 1.2 million people Sunday morning. Nuns in gray and white habits and teen-agers in fluorescent yellow and green fashions put the last touches on flower arrangements on the altar, which has been decorated with thousands of red poinsettias and carnations and broad-leafed tropical plants.

The site of the mass is rimmed by a honeycomb of shanties, called ranchitos, of one of Caracas' poorest slums.

The papal motorcade drove to Caracas on a freshly painted road lined with thousands of newly planted shrubs, part of the all-out cleanup effort that preceded the visit.

No expense has been spared in preparing for the pope's visit, even though Venezuela has been mired in an economic crisis for the past two years. The government has spent $10 million on the visit, mostly on security measures and a lightning cleanup of Caracas and the three other cities he will visit.

"They cleaned up the city and fixed the potholes," said a national guardsman, one of the 35,000 soldiers and policemen charged with providing security for the pope. The government has given workers two days off, and major Caracas expressways have been closed and liquor sales banned.

During his 12-day journey, the pontiff will tour 15 cities in Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru and will stop over in Trinidad and Tobago, just off Venezuela's coast.

The highest drama of the trip is likely to take place in Ayacucho, Peru, where thousands of people have been killed since 1980 in guerrilla violence. There, amid unprecedented security measures, the pope will address about 200,000 Indian peasants.

On the Venezuelan leg of his journey the pope is expected to concentrate on pastoral concerns, addressing topics such as the family, education, youth and work.

However, the pope also is expected to speak about social justice and may address the controversial theme of liberation theology, the belief that the church should play an active role in political struggles for the rights of the poor.

In Venezuela he will not find a church divided between activist clergy and conservative bishops as is the case in other Latin American countries.

"The high church has been liberal," said the Rev. Arturo Sosa, a leading proponent of liberation theology in Venezuela.

The church in Venezuela traditionally has been weak, and church leaders here hope for a reversal as a result of the pope's visit.

Only an estimated 10 percent of Venezuela's 90 percent Catholic population attends services regularly. Cults -- a result of syncretism, or a melding of Catholic, African and Indian beliefs -- are strong. Priestly vocations are few, and the church relies mostly on foreign-born missionaries for priests.

The reasons for the church's weakness are historical, according to Father Sosa. Because Venezuela was an underpopulated and unimportant part of the Spanish empire, few priests came here, and the church never consolidated its position, he said.

During the war of independence at the beginning of the 19th century, the church's sympathies were mostly with the losing loyalists. During the 1880s, liberal governments closed seminaries.

It was only in 1964 that the government of Venezuela and the Vatican settled one of the issues that had been in constant dispute: the republican government's right, inherited from the Spanish crown, to approve the naming of bishops.