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SANTIAGO, Chile - A surprisingly spry Gordon B. Hinckley walked on his own into a stadium filled with 45,000 adoring Latter-day Saints on Saturday night. The faithful erupted in a prolonged applause for the man they consider "prophet, seer and revelator."
Hinckley leaned on a cane, was thinner and seemed slowed a bit, but his voice and memory were as strong as ever as he addressed the gathered masses. He seemed energized by the Chileans' devotion.
"I just want to tell you how much we love you as faithful Latter-day Saints," Hinckley said. "I respect and admire you so much."
The leader of the 12-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is here to rededicate the church's Santiago Temple, which has been closed for renovations and additions. He was also scheduled to speak at a "member meeting" and enjoy a cultural celebration that has become the tradition for Mormon teens before temple dedications.
After Hinckley's surgery in January to remove a cancerous growth from his colon, there was some question about whether the 95-year-old would make the trip.
"I wondered if I would be able to get here," Hinckley said Saturday. "But I pondered and prayed and decided it was worth the effort. I'm grateful I have done so."
To preserve his strength, he said he wouldn't speak long. In fact, Hinckley talked for nearly 15 minutes in the sweltering Santiago heat at sunset.
He described seeing visiting dignitaries and diplomats at the airport as he arrived; they were coming for Saturday's inauguration of Chile's new president, Michelle Bachelet. She is the first woman to lead this South American nation.
"I congratulate her," he said. "I pray the Lord blesses her as she leads this great nation . . . that the people may be blessed with freedom."
Hinckley recalled being in Chile on the day in 1973 when socialist Salvador Allende was elected. Allende was deposed in a military coup.
"That was a troubled time for Chile," Hinckley said. "There was an unsettling feeling."
In the 45 years the Mormon leader has been visiting this country, he has seen steady growth in the LDS population. At first, they taught the faith to schoolchildren in a shed, a dark little building.
"Now we have 75 stakes [like a diocese], 25 districts and nine missions," he said.
Hinckley predicted that growth would continue.
"Where we now have thousands, we'll have tens of thousands," he said. "I believe that will happen."
At the end of his speech, Hinckley took a cue from Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim.
"God bless you, every one," he said.
People pulled out white handkerchiefs and began wildly waving to him. Fluttering whiteness filled the arena. Hinckley, obviously moved, pulled out one of his own and waved back. For six minutes, they sang and waved to each other.
And then he was gone.
After an hour break, the cultural celebration continued; Hinckley did not return, but he reportedly watched the festivities on a monitor at his hotel. In his absence, his two sons, Richard and Clark Hinckley, presided over the exuberant, boisterous display of Chilean and Mormon history.
It began when an army of Mormon missionaries in their white shirts and ties marched in waving Chilean flags and singing the church anthem, "Called to Serve."
Red-and-gold-clad performers danced the mournful tale of the Spanish conquest of Indians. Mormon teens acted out folk tales of roosters pursuing hens or two groups of devils fighting for dominance.
At the end of the performance, the teens all poured onto the field and sang ''God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again'' to Hinckley.
The evening was filled with joy and delight for the thousands of Mormons, many of whom had driven for eight to 10 hours just to join their fellow believers.
But it was Hinckley's willingness to come that caused the greatest stir.
"The thing I admire the most is that the prophet was brave enough to resist pain we all have as human beings," Fresia Orellana said through an interpreter. She is married to an LDS stake president, and her son is in the Missionary Training Center here getting ready for his two-year mission to southern Chile.
"I know that God sent him here to bless us and show his love and tell us what he expects us to do," Orellana said.
Juan Carlos Traverso said he loves "the positive way President Hinckley looks at life and leads the church."
"I hope he can live many years," Traverso said. "Maybe to 100."