Pope Benedict XVI has thanked the Mexican and Cuban people for providing him with six “unforgettable days of joy and hope that will remain etched in my heart.”

“Their inexhaustible joy, expressed with loud songs and music, as well as their eyes and their gestures, expressed the strong desire of all the children of Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean to live in peace, serenity and harmony, in a more just and reconciled society,” said Pope Benedict during his April 4 general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

In keeping with his usual custom, the Pope devoted the majority of his first general audience after he traveled to Mexico and Cuba to assessing the visit.

He told the more than 11,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square that memories of the March 23-28 journey “aroused emotions that are still very much alive,” such that his soul “instinctively gives thanks to the Lord,” who “in his providence, … wanted me to go for the first time as the Successor of Peter to these two countries.”

“With it I wanted to embrace the entire continent, inviting everyone to live together in hope and in a concrete commitment to walk together toward a better future,” he said.

Pope Benedict first recalled his arrival in the Mexican city of León, where a “large, cheering crowd gave me an extraordinary, jubilant and lively welcome, as a sign of the warm embrace of an entire population.”

During his visit to Mexico, the Pope expressed deep concern at the levels of drug-related crime and violence that are afflicting the country. He also saw signs of hope, however, in those “endless lines of people along the streets” that enthusiastically followed him.

“In those hands that reached out in a sign of greeting and affection, in those happy faces, in the shouts of joy, I caught the tenacious hope of Mexican Christians,” he said.

And it is a “hope still burning in their hearts, despite the difficult times of violence, which I did not fail to deplore, with my heartfelt thoughts for the victims, some of whom I was able to personally comfort.”

He explained how his message to the 600,000 people who attended Sunday Mass in León’s Bicentennial Park was that “the energy to serve Christ in difficult situations and suffering” is born out of the “joy of being Christian and the joy of belonging to the Church.”

“I urged everyone to trust in the goodness of Almighty God, which can change dark and unbearable situations from within, from the heart,” he recalled.

“The Mexicans responded with their ardent faith, with their convinced adherence to the Gospel. I recognized once again consoling signs of hope for the continent.”

The next day Pope Benedict arrived in Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba. His primary aim in visiting the Caribbean island, he explained, was to “to support the mission of the Catholic Church, committed to proclaiming the Gospel with joy.”

At the same time, the Pope did not avoid noting that there is a “poverty of resources” and that there are difficulties “still to be overcome, so that religion can carry out its spiritual service and its part in formation in the public square of society.”

Before arriving on the island nation, the Pope had suggested that communist Cuba was at a crossroads, stating that “it is evident today that Marxist ideology, as it had been conceived, no longer responds to reality.”

Today in Rome he reaffirmed this and called upon Cuba’s Catholics to give “new vigor to their faith and to assist with the courage of forgiveness and understanding, in building an open and renewed society” that has “more room for God.”

When God is removed, he warned, “the world becomes an inhospitable place for humans.”

Cuba and the world needed to change, he said, but that will only happen “if everyone is open to the integral truth about man, which is essential for achieving freedom, and if everyone decides to sow the seeds of reconciliation and brotherhood around them.”

This will also require Cuba to build its civic life upon Jesus Christ, who “alone can dispel the darkness of error, helping to defeat the evil and all that oppresses us.”

The Pope told pilgrims that he appreciated recent steps taken by the Cuban authorities towards greater religious freedom, but he also “stressed the need to continue on this path” in coming years.

“The Church does not demand privileges,” he said, “but also needs to be able to proclaim and celebrate the faith publicly, bringing the Gospel message of hope and peace to every area of society.”

Pope Benedict summarized the success of his trip by saying, this “trip to Mexico and Cuba, thank God, has had the desired pastoral success.”