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Pope Benedict Prepares for Trip to Mexico and Cuba

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Pope Benedict's trip to Mexico and Cuba March 23-28, 2012, will be a relatively brief one, consisting of a little more than two days in each country. Yet his visit is bound to highlight a wide range of prominent issues affecting an entire continent of crucial importance to the Catholic Church.

The pope arrives in Leon, in central Mexico on March 23. On the evening of March 24, the Pope will meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose administration has been marked by a violent struggle between the military and the country's drug cartels, a topic that will presumably arise in discussions between the two men.

The next day, Pope Benedict will address bishops from Mexico and across Latin America at a vespers service in Leon's Cathedral of Our Most Holy Mother of Light. Here he is likely to touch on some of the issues that he raised on his only other Latin American trip, in 2007. At that time, the pope urged church leaders to struggle against poverty and oppression but to shun direct involvement in partisan politics -- an echo of his long-standing critique of the liberation theology movement, which grew from Latin American roots.

The country remains a mix of highly assertive secular and religious traditions, making it potentially fertile ground for the new evangelization that Pope Benedict has made a priority of his pontificate, and which will be the theme of a Vatican synod of bishops this October.

Cuba, where the pope goes March 26, is in a sense the mirror image of Mexico. It's a country where the Catholic Church has enjoyed relatively tranquil dealings with the civil authorities; diplomatic relations with the Holy See have never been interrupted, even by the institution of a communist government in the 1960s, but religious practice has traditionally been as feeble as anywhere in Latin America.

Church officials estimate that only about 2.5 percent of Cuba's population of 11 million can be considered practicing Catholics today, a fraction of the proportion prior to the revolution, though it represents a significant rise since the visit of Pope John Paul in 1998.

Pope Benedict will no doubt raise issues of religious and political freedom with President Raul Castro when they meet on March 27. The pope is also widely expected to meet with the president's brother, former President Fidel Castro, although no such encounter yet appears on his official schedule. The Holy Father will also be greeted by Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana and by other religious and civil authorities

The main reason for Pope Benedict's trip is a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the country's patron saint, in the southeastern city of Santiago. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the miraculous appearance of the statue venerated at the basilica there.

(Francis X. Rocca – CNS Rome)

EWTN will provide extensive coverage of the major events of Pope Benedict’s visit to Mexico and Cuba. To view the complete schedule on EWTN (English), please click here: http://www.ewtn.com/papalvisitmxcu2012/coverage.asp.

For the complete schedule on EWTN Español (Spanish), please click here: http://www.ewtn.com/PapaMexicoCuba2012/cobertura.asp.

People walk past a banner welcoming Pope Benedict XVI outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City March 19. The pope will arrive in Leon, Mexico, March 23 to begin his six-day visit to Mexico and Cuba. (CNS photo/Tomas Bravo, Reuters) (Click photo to view larger.)