Monday, January 2, 2012

Papal visit to Mexico confirmed for March 23; then on to Cuba March 26-28

Pope's trip will coincide with 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's excommunication

Vatican City - The Holy See and the Mexican and Cuban Conferences of Catholic Bishops have confirmed the Latin America itinerary of Pope Benedict XVI, who will make his first trip to Mexico and Cuba this spring. In a departure from normal practice, the papal party will bypass the Mexican capital completely, focusing instead on another region of the country. He will visit the Cuban capital during the last 24 hours of his trip.

The Holy Father will arrive in Guanajuato, northwest of Mexico City, on the afternoon of Friday, March 23, where he will be received by Mexican president Felipe Calderón. He will conduct several public masses and deliver apostolic messages over the next 72 hours, before departing for Cuba on Monday morning, March 26. All of the pope's activities in Mexico will be limited to Guanajuato state, which is centrally located. The governor of Guanajuato says that the capital of León will be prepared to accommodate up to 700,000 Roman Catholics who are expected to travel to the city to hear the pope say mass.

From Mexico the pope will travel directly to Santiago de Cuba, about 600 miles east of Havana. Cuban president Raul Castro is expected to greet him there. After several public appearances, Benedict will depart from the island's capital on March 28. He will celebrate an open-air mass in Havana's famous Plaza de la Revolución with cardinal Jaime Ortega, the city's archbishop, and other church leaders, just before leaving.

It is unknown whether the pope will also meet with former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who turned power over to this brother Raul in 2006. Fidel, 85, was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII on January 2, 1962, after announcing the month before that Cuba would follow a communist path. Although the island's relations with the Vatican have warmed in recent years, especially since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, the excommunication decree has never been lifted. Church officials say there is no reason to believe that it will be as a result of Benedict's trip. President Raul Castro has emphasized that the Holy Father will be received with "affection and respect."

In a Mexican presidential election year which already has the candidates sparring on a wide range of issues, Vatican officials have emphasized that the visit of Benedict, 84, is purely pastoral, and not intended to affect secular political debate in the country. Church and state are strictly segregated under the law, but all of the candidates are Catholic, as is about 80% of Mexico's population.

A spokesman for the Vatican press office in Rome characterized the trip as "one of the big events of the pope's year, and a great opportunity for him to connect with the people of Mexico and Cuba. And of course this year is the bicentennial anniversary of many Latin American nations, so the visit will have special significance for the entire continent."

In a reference to concerns about possible organized crime disruptions, a church official said that the pope "is coming to the country with the security of being among the Mexican people, and without fear of being a victim of violence." Other church leaders said that every Mexican citizen who turns out to see the Holy Father would be his "protector."

Papal visit is non-political, says Vatican:

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