HAVANA (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI will visit Communist-run Cuba this spring, a senior Roman Catholic Church official said Thursday, the first trip here by a pontiff since John Paul II’s historic tour in 1998.
The exact date of the trip, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint, will be announced in Rome early next week, according to Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, executive secretary of the Cuban Bishops Conference.
Cuba’s church has played an increasingly important role in Cuba in recent years, helping negotiate the release of political prisoners in 2009 and 2010 and even consulting with President Raul Castro and his advisers on free-market changes he is pushing to save the island’s economy from ruin.
Vatican officials have said that the pope also is considering a visit to Mexico, and the Dec. 12 date for announcing the schedule for his trip coincides with celebrations of Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Benedict, 84, has limited his travels mostly to Europe, both to spare him from long trips and to focus his efforts on a continent where Christianity has fallen by the wayside. He did visit Brazil in 2007 and has said he hopes to return in 2013 for World Youth Day, the church’s youth festival. And he has a trip to Benin coming up later this month, the second to Africa in his six-year pontificate.
Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as Fidel Castro increasingly embraced Marxism and the Soviet Union, anti-clerical actions increased: Authorities discouraged Christmas celebrations, closed religious schools in 1962 and barred Communist Party membership to people of religious belief.
But relations began easing after the Cold War. Cuba removed references to atheism from the constitution in the 1990s and allowed believers of all faiths to join the party.
Then came John Paul’s visit in 1998, when Castro shed his trademark olive-green fatigues for a business suit and tie to greet the pope personally at the airport.
Nothing so groundbreaking is expected of Benedict’s visit, but it nonetheless will be a historic moment.
Monsignor Perez said the pope would meet with members of Raul Castro’s government and may discuss the economic reforms that already have made it much easier for Cubans to do such things as go into business for themselves, take out loans, and buy and sell their homes and cars.
“What will be the content of their conversations? It’s difficult to foresee. … The changes that are already under way, which are perhaps too timid in my personal opinion, that is a matter that will probably appear,” Monsignor Perez said. “But it’s not the purpose of the Holy Father’s visit.”
Monsignor Perez said Benedict’s primary motivation is to make a pilgrimage in honor of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, the patron of Cuba. A relic of the virgin has making its way around the island this year.