Pope Prepares For Visit to Mexico, Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he boards his plane to leave for his pastoral visit to Mexico and Cuba, at Fiumicino International Airport in Rome, March 23, 2012.
Pope Benedict XVI waves as he boards his plane to leave for his pastoral visit to Mexico and Cuba, at Fiumicino International Airport in Rome, March 23, 2012.

Pope Benedict XVI embarks on a trip to Mexico and Cuba March 23. It will be the German-born pontiff's first visit to Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.  The two countries he is visiting have very different religious landscapes.

Security heightened

The Roman Catholic leader, 84 is avoiding the high altitude of Mexico City, on the advice of Vatican doctors, and will begin his trip in Guanajuato, several hundred kilometers from the capital.  Thousands of security forces will be deployed amid concerns about safety in a country plagued by drug violence.

After Mexico, Benedict will travel to Cuba's second city, Santiago.  He is officially making the trip to honor the national devotion to Our Lady of Charity of Cuba, and to commemorate the miraculous discovery of a statue of the national patroness 400 years ago.

"The pope himself has said that he's coming as a pilgrim of charity, obviously to accompany the people of Cuba during this great time for them," said Rev. Juan Molina, who will accompany the pope in Cuba.  Molina is director of the Latin America office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

Previous visits

Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited Cuba in 1998, but the country has changed since then, with some increase in religious freedom and economic reforms.  Georgetown University theology professor Chester Gillis notes the differences in Benedict's and John Paul's pontifical styles.

"John Paul II was such a media darling, and so charismatic," Gillis noted. "And Benedict XVI is not.  He is a great intellectual, a deeply spiritual man."

John Paul visited Mexico five times and is revered there.  Mexico is Latin America's largest Spanish-speaking Roman Catholic country, but like other countries in the region, the church there is losing adherents to pentecostal and other evangelical Protestant churches.

Gillis says the Vatican is concerned about the problem, "because that seepage has hurt the church.  Latin America is still very heavily Roman Catholic, but there are places where there have been significant defections from Catholicism."  In some countries more than a quarter of the population is now Protestant.

Church and state

An estimated 10 percent of Cubans are practicing Roman Catholics, and since the communist government relaxed restrictions in the 1990s, the church has gained influence.  President Raul Castro's attitude is different than his brother Fidel's, says Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.  

"A big difference between the relationship between the Catholic Church now and before is that Raul Castro has a direct dialogue with the Catholic Church.  Fidel Castro didn't," the analyst says. "Fidel Castro tended to talk over the heads of the Cuban bishops to the Vatican."

The Roman Catholic cardinal in Havana, Jaime Ortega, has met repeatedly with Raul Castro, speaking in favor of economic reforms.  In addition, the church negotiated a deal last year that freed the last 75 prisoners held by Cuba on political charges.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.
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Comment Sorting
by: NVO
March 22, 2012 9:14 AM
This vicar of Christ is NOT a pope. The only Vicar of Christ is the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says,But when the God sends the Advocate as my representative that is, the HOLY SPIRIT he will teach you everything and will remind you.Claiming that the pope is the Vicar of Christ, the RC Church rejects the sufficiency and supremacy of Christs role, and grants the pope roles that Christ declared would belong to the Holy Spirit. It is BLASPHEMY to ascribe to the pope the title of "Vicar of Christ".

by: NVO
March 22, 2012 8:21 AM
Again, the Bible teaches that it is Scripture that is to be used as measuring stick to determine truth from error. In Galatians 1:8-9; Paul states that it is not WHO teaches but WHAT is being taught that is to be used to determine truth from error. While the Roman Catholic Church continues to pronounce a curse to hell, or “anathema,” upon those who would reject the authority of the pope, Scripture reserves that curse for THOSE who would teach a different gospel (Galatians 1:8-9).

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