source: USA TODAY
Benedict XVI now will walk in that wider doorway. The official reason for the trip is pastoral. Just weeks before his 85th birthday, Benedict is mustering his waning strength to bring encouragement to the Cuban flock after his first stop in Mexico this week.
STORY: Pope's Mexico trip a chance to explore church-state conflict The pope will bless the patroness of Cuba, La Caridad, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, on the 400th anniversary of her statue found floating in the sea. Experts say his two-day visit to Cuba benefits the Vatican with increased opportunity to promote the faith in a country that once imprisoned priests, confiscated church property, shuttered religious schools and deprived active Catholics of education and job opportunities. In turn, the visit benefits the Castro brothers — ailing revolutionary Fidel and his now-ruling brother Raúl — who know the Roman Catholic Church has always opposed the half-century-old U.S. trade embargo.
Thousands of U.S. Catholics are streaming in to see the pope, 500 from South Florida alone. Historian and Benedict biographer Matthew Bunson says the pontiff "wants to give a vocal and open show of support for the Cuban church and the Cuban people — 60% to 70% of whom are Catholic — and translate their historic faith into a more active and vibrant Catholic life." Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, who has been to Cuba frequently in the past decade, sees this visit as possibly as transformative as John Paul's visit. Wenski estimates churchgoing is still weak in Cuba — maybe just 500,000 attend Sunday Mass among the nation's 12 million people. But when La Caridad was loaded onto a pickup and toured around the island for 15 months, an estimated 4 million people came out to greet her. Still, the relationship between church and state is "not yet what it could be. The church doesn't have the complete freedom it enjoys in other free societies,"Wenski says.
Even so, Wenski can tick off signs of progress, including: •A newly completed seminary campus is the first major construction project by the church since the revolution. •Renovations are now underway in several churches. •Cuba's first program offering a master's in business administration is offered at a new Catholic cultural center in Havana. •St. Thomas University, owned by the Archdiocese of Miami, gives training programs to public school teachers in Cuba. National Catholic Reporter Vatican expert John Allen says the Castro brothers "want international legitimacy. Wrapping the pope in a warm, loving embrace, showing they're not enemies of the faith, is a good way to get it," Allen says. But political scientist Thomas Reese says Benedict might also "shake his finger at the Castros and challenge them to pay attention to religious liberty.FINAL REPORT OF THE BBC IN MEXICO BEFORE THE POPE WENT TO CUBA (click)
FROM THE DAILY TELEGRAPH (CLICK)
FROM THE DAILY TELEGRAPH (CLICK)
THE POPE'S VISIT TO MEXICO IN PICTURES (click)
PAPAL VISIT TO CUBA
THE POPE CALLS FOR AN OPEN SOCIETY IN CUBA (BBC) (click title)
COMMUNIST MEETS CATHOLIC (Mail Online) (click title)
THE POPE URGES FREEDOMS FOR CUBANS AND HONOURS THE NATIONAL SHRINE OF THE VIRGIN
Urging freedoms for Cuba, pope honours patron saint Link this Share this Digg Email Print Related Topics World » By Simon Gardner and Philip Pullella SANTIAGO, Cuba | Tue Mar 27, 2012 5:56pm BST (Reuters) -
Pope Benedict on Tuesday urged Cubans to "work for justice" during a ceremony to pay homage to the island's patron saint, and said he was close to those "deprived of freedom," an apparent reference to political prisoners in the communist-run nation. A steel band played "Ave Maria" and onlookers waved Cuban flags as the pontiff visited a basilica housing the doll-sized figurine of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre on the second day of a papal trip the Roman Catholic Church hopes will foster renewed faith and increase its influence in Cuba. Benedict was to fly from eastern Cuba to Havana after what the Church calls his "pilgrimage" to the Virgin for a meeting on Tuesday afternoon with President Raul Castro and possibly his older brother, former leader Fidel Castro. He was to give a public Mass on Wednesday before returning home from the second papal visit in history to the Caribbean island. Pope John Paul II came to Cuba in 1998 on a landmark trip that helped improve long-troubled Church-state relations. Cuba is marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the icon of the Virgin, an important figure for both the Church and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is a legacy of Cuba's slavery era and which knows her as Ochun, the goddess of love. Found floating in a bay in 1612 by fishermen, the icon was revered by Cuba's independence heroes and is enshrined at the basilica in the town of El Cobre in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains from which Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara staged the 1959 Cuban revolution. Thousands of Cubans of all denominations go to the shrine each year to pay tribute to the Virgin, to whom they have left an array of offerings, from signed baseballs and judo medals to bags of human hair and letters, seeking miracles and blessings. Longtime Cuban resident Ernest Hemingway donated his 1954 Nobel Literature Prize to the icon, but the medallion has been stored away since it was briefly stolen in the 1980s. The pope was inspired to visit after he saw images of a procession around the island last year of a replica of the figurine, also known as the Mambisa Virgin, that drew hundreds of thousands of people. "I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said after praying in front of the gold-swathed wooden figure of Virgin and child. He urged Cubans to "work for justice, to be servants of charity and to persevere in the midst of trials," and offered a prayer to the Virgin "for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones," he added, in a clear reference to political prisoners as well as Cuban exiles. Cuba has a history of jailing or harassing government opponents, who it views as mercenaries in the pay of the United States, its long-time ideological foe. Castro released 130 political prisoners in a 2010 deal brokered with the Church, but dissidents say close to 50 are currently behind bars. After arriving in Santiago on Monday from Mexico to start his first trip to Cuba, the 84-year-old pope celebrated an open-air Mass for tens of thousands of people in the city's Revolution Square, and urged Cubans to build a better, "renewed and open society". While he made thinly veiled references to Cuba's human rights record, he appeared to ease off after saying just days earlier that communism in Cuba no longer worked and a new economic model was needed. IMPROVED CHURCH-STATE RELATIONS "The government needs to loosen its grip on power," said 80-year-old Belkis Ivonnet Lopez, as she watched Monday's Mass in Santiago. "We lived very well before the revolution. No one was hungry, everyone had everything they needed. ... But that's not the case now; everything is very expensive. Life was better before." Some ordinary Cubans disagree, and say they want Cuba to remain communist. "I hope the pope's visit brings peace and helps ... to end the blockade the United States has unjustly imposed," said Juana Niris Perez, 55, a waitress at a hotel in Santiago. "The model here should not be changed. Other countries should follow the Cuban example," she added, extolling the island's free education and healthcare. President Castro has steadily improved relations with the Church, using it as an interlocutor on issues such as political prisoners and dissidents, while moving forward with reforms to Cuba's struggling Soviet-style economy. They include slashing a million government jobs and opening up some sectors to small-scale private enterprise. The Church has urged Castro to move further and faster to modernize Cuba, both economically and politically. Castro showed deference to the pope at Monday's Mass, walking up steps to take his hand and inclining his head. Church officials say Benedict's schedule in Cuba has not allowed for meetings with dissidents, who say Castro's government flouts human rights and suppresses their voices.(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Jeff Franks and David Adams; Desking by Eric Walsh)
Pope wraps Cuba visit with Mass, Fidel meeting
By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
HAVANA, Cuba (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI wraps up his visit to Cuba on Wednesday with an open-air Mass in the shrine of the Cuban revolution, hoping to revive the Catholic faith in this communist-run country. His other appointment promises a far more tantalizing climax: a meeting with Fidel Castro.
The former Cuban leader announced late Tuesday that he would happily meet with Benedict, saying he was asking for just a "few minutes of his very busy time" in Havana.
The Vatican had already said Benedict was available, so the confirmation from Castro was all that was needed to seal the appointment and end weeks of speculation as to whether Castro would repeat the meeting he held with Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 visit.
"I will happily greet His Excellency Pope Benedict XVI as I did John Paul II, a man for whom contact with children and the humble raised feelings of affection," Castro wrote. "That's why I decided to ask for a few minutes of his very busy time when I heard from the mouth of our foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, that he would be agreeable."
The audience and Benedict's Mass in Revolution Plaza come 14 years after John Paul preached on the same spot before hundreds of thousands of people, Fidel among them. Then, an image of Jesus Christ was displayed opposite the plaza's iconic image of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a remarkable development for a country that had been officially atheist until 1992.
This time around, a huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of one of the buildings facing the plaza near Che. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's three-day visit, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the diminutive statue.
Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of Santiago on Tuesday morning and prayed to her for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans — another gentle nudge to the government to continue opening itself up to greater reforms.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," the pope said. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
It wasn't long before a top official in Havana responded: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo, Cuba's economic czar and a vice president.
Benedict had begun his trip to Mexico and Cuba by asserting that Marxism as it was originally conceived is irrelevant for today's reality. Upon arriving on Cuban soil, however, he softened the message that clearly irritated his hosts, pressing gently instead for the Roman Catholic Church to play a greater role in Cuban life and for Cuba's people to enjoy greater freedoms.
The Vatican spokesman said the Holy See didn't take Murillo's comments as a rebuff to Benedict's call, noting that the pope isn't a political leader who can change laws or political systems. But he said Benedict does have some concrete hopes for the visit.
During a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro — twice the normal length of papal audiences with heads of state — Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday, when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ.
The request, like so much of this trip, was a follow-up of sorts to Cuba's decision to declare Christmas a national holiday in honor of John Paul's 1998 visit. Cubans hadn't had Christmas off for nearly 30 years.
"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be a sign of a positive step — as was the case of Christmas after John Paul's visit," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The government didn't give an immediate response, but Lombardi said it was only natural for Cuba to take time to consider it. The government, which frequently declares holidays at the last minute, could make a quick gesture in honor of Benedict given that Good Friday this year falls in less than two weeks, on April 6.
Benedict also raised "humanitarian" issues with Raul Castro, an apparent reference to political prisoners. Lombardi said he didn't know if individual cases were discussed.
Primarily, though, Benedict came to Cuba to try to win a greater place in society for the Catholic Church, which has been marginalized in the six decades of Castro family rule.
The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations. But despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. Only about 10 percent of Cubans are practicing Catholics.
"Naturally a papal visit hopes to be an impulse for further steps, be it for the life of the church or for the good of society in its entirety," Lombardi told reporters, citing media, education and health care as areas where the church wants a greater say.
But in a country that once preached atheism and still is dominated by Marxist thought, that's not just a hard sell for the government, but for ordinary Cubans alike.
Ana Blanco, a 47-year-old Havana resident, complained that people were being told to attend Wednesday's Mass, saying the pressure seemed odd in a country that in her early years taught her religion was wrong.
"Now there's this visit by the pope, and I don't agree with giving it so much importance or making anyone go to the Mass or other activities," the office worker said. "Before it was bad, now it's good. That creates confusion."___
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia and Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.
Follow AP reporters covering the pope: www.twitter.com/(hashtag)!/AP/pope-visit.
Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
THE POPE'S VISIT SPARKS HOPE IN CUBA (BBC)
THE POPE ENDS HIS VISIT CALLING FOR BASIC FREEDOMS
THE POPE CRITICISES THE U.S. EMBARGO ON CUBA. (BBC)
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