VATICAN CITY—Panama must use its recovered control over the Panama Canal and its income to benefit its poorest citizens, Pope John Paul II said.

The Dec. 31 return of the canal will have “great juridical, practical, economic and political consequences,” the Pope said Dec. 4 in a speech to Panama's new ambassador to the Vatican.

In 1978 the United States agreed to restore Panama's sovereignty over the canal, which the United States has run since 1914.

Pope John Paul said, “The recuperation of sovereignty over the territory must be carried out with special care in order to avoid having extraneous interests or pressures spoiling the benefits that this magnificent historic opportunity can bring all citizens.”

The canal must be seen as a resource to be used to promote the development of the country and the eradication of poverty, the Pope said.

Panama's peace and prosperity, he said, require a commitment to recognizing the equality of the country's various ethnic groups, improving education, reforming the judicial system and overhauling the nation's prisons so that they prepare people to return to society.

Pope John Paul told Edda Victoria Martinelli de Dutari, the new ambassador, that he hoped the overwhelmingly Catholic population of Panama would experience the year 2000 as a time of spiritual renewal and reconciliation.

He also said the Great Jubilee Year should be an “opportunity to meditate on the other challenges of the moment such as, for example, the difficulty of dialogue between different cultures, problems related to respect for the rights of women and the promotion of the family and marriage.”