VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI confirmed Dec. 12 that he will visit Cuba and Mexico in March next year.
The Holy Father made the announcement at St. Peter’s Basilica during an evening Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Mass marked the bicentenary of the independence of many Latin American nations, including Mexico.
The announcement confirmed remarks Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi made to reporters on Nov. 10, when he noted that the Pope hoped to visit a Spanish-speaking country in the region, Mexico being the largest one. Father Lombardi also identified Cuba as “another country that really wants to see the Pope,” adding that a papal visit there could offer great encouragement to the people and the country “in an important period of their history.”
Benedict has made just one visit to Latin America as Pope: In 2007, he visited the Portuguese-speaking nation of Brazil.
The March visit will coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba. That Caribbean nation remains under communist rule, although some minor economic reforms have been announced in recent years.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s Church is grappling with the challenges posed by increasing religious pluralism. According to a recent census reported in the Dec. 13 edition of the Latin American Herald Tribune, more than 1,000 Mexicans left the Catholic Church every day over the last decade, adding up to some 4 million fallen-away Catholics between 2000 and 2010. Catholics are still the vast majority, however, numbering 92.9 million out of a total population of 112 million.
Like the rest of the country, the Catholic Church in Mexico is also affected by drug trafficking. At times, donations are reportedly provided by dubious benefactors, new chapels are built with drug money and dozens of priests have been transferred, following death threats from drug gangs. Some argue that the Church lacks a formal strategy on how to deal with the cartels.
The Pope views his visit to both countries as important for evangelization, and his trip will take place four years after the Latin American bishops embarked on an intensive effort to advance the New Evangelization in the region. The papal trip is expected to help prepare the entire Church for the Year of Faith, which is scheduled to begin in October 2012.
Speaking to the Register shortly before the announcement, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said the planned visit would be “very exciting,” not only for Cuba and Mexico, but also for the United States.
“So many people in the United States were born in Mexico, and so his visit there is of great interest also to Mexican people in the United States,” he said. The Capuchin archbishop noted that many Cuban immigrants live in the Eastern part of the U.S.
“A lot of the leadership of the Hispanic community in Philadelphia is Cubans, so the Holy Father’s visit there will have a special interest to the people of Philadelphia,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Critical Time for Cuba
Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said that regardless of what structural or political changes one might see in Cuba as a result of the Holy Father’s visit, “the Cuban people will be encouraged by his pastoral concern and the attention of the world focused on the island nation as a result.”
Blessed John Paul II made a historic visit to Cuba in 1998, nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Father Sirico recalled that much of the world’s media covered the Polish Pope’s visit to the island nation until the Monica Lewinski-President Bill Clinton scandal broke during the trip.
“As one who was in Havana at the time, there was a palpable change in the atmosphere knowing that the world’s attention was deflected elsewhere,” Father Sirico remembered.
“Nonetheless, the Cuban people were greatly encouraged, and there was an easing of repression against the Church, at least for a time. In sum, anything that puts the reality of Cuba under the microscope is a good thing, or, to use the words of Blessed John Paul on his visit, ‘Let Cuba be open to the world and the world to Cuba.’”
The timing of the visit comes at a critical juncture for the Cuban Church. Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the longtime archbishop of Havana, has submitted his resignation in accordance with canon law, and the appointment of his successor is pending.
“Even if that appointment does not come for some time, a visit by the Pope to Cuba will greatly inform his final decision,” Father Sirico said.
The priest suggested that it is “not inconceivable” that an ailing Fidel Castro, who led the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and ruled the country until 2008, may be gone by the time Pope Benedict arrives there. And even if he were still alive, “his personal presence will no doubt be attenuated, which is not a small thing in a place where he has been a looming figure for so long.”
Castro’s brother, Raul, who succeeded Fidel as president, is also a communist, but Father Sirico believes he might be “more willing to face the reality of what socialism has done to Cuba.” Raul Castro has permitted some tentative reforms regarding property rights.
Father Sirico views the current leadership as “looking for a way out” of economic stagnation. A willingness to reach out to the Vatican may be a sign the communist regime seeks a new approach.
In 2008, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone visited Cuba, and the Holy See’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, traveled there last year.
“A Cuban priest told me when I was there that even some members of the Communist Party had entered an RCIA program and were converting to Catholicism,” Father Sirico said. “This creates tensions both within the Communist Party, who cannot tolerate any religious commitment, and within the Church, where the faithful may be dubious of the sincerity of these converts.”
Archbishop Chaput said he was “astonished” that Cuba is still communist. “The revolution took place a long time ago, and the leadership is still in place,” he said. “So, we’ll see, in God’s time.”
When the Pope makes his second papal visit to Latin America, he will be less than a month short of his 85th birthday. Archbishop Chaput marveled at the Holy Father’s stamina; when he was still a cardinal, he had suggested that his travel days were over.
“Despite his age, he’s doing that [traveling] in an extraordinary way, very joyously,” he said. “I’m really happy he’s able to do that. I’m quite surprised because I don’t know when I’m his age whether I’d have that energy, but he’s giving a good example of pastoral availability and love.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.