Updated Monday morning
Pope Benedict XVI is on the 23rd foreign trip of his papacy but his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America. (He visited Brazil in 2007.) Benedict will spend the weekend in Mexico, then move Monday to Cuba before returning to Rome late Wednesday.
At one level, this is a tale of two different trips.
The pope's swing in Mexico will likely amount to a celebration of popular Catholicism, with about 3 million exuberant faithful expected to turn out. It also comes just ahead of national elections in July, raising fears of manipulation of the trip for political ends, especially given perceptions that the Mexican church is aligned in favor of the conservative National Action Party. However, Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, a retired Vatican official who will accompany the pope, recently insisted that trying to see the trip through the prism of electoral politics "would be like forcing the ocean into an oyster."
In Cuba, meanwhile, the pope comes to bring aid and comfort to a church that has long been suffocated by a hostile regime, shrunk by decades of state-imposed atheism to just 10 percent of the population, as measured by regular Mass attendance. Yet Cuban Catholicism still possesses impressive resilience, and is widely seen as the lone social institution able to extract concessions on human rights from the Castro government.
Officially, Benedict is visiting Mexico to commemorate the 20th anniversary of full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, while the occasion in Cuba is the 400th anniversary of the El Cobre sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's Catholic patroness. Wags have long joked that under Castro, the real patron saint is actually Che Guevara, but devotion to the Virgin of Charity is undergoing a renaissance as the state's grip on the church has loosened.
As has happened to Benedict on many of his other foreign trips, he may benefit from low expectations.
More coverage of Benedict's trip to Mexico and Cuba:
- Cuban dissidents attend Mass, hold protest, day before pope's arrival , March 25
- Pope greets Mexicans affected by notorious crimes ,March 25
- Trust in God to help change society, pope says in Mexico's heartland ,March 25
- Book released as Pope arrives in Mexcio says: Ratzinger altered canon law to soften Maciel punishment , by Jason Berry March 24
- Pope arrives in Mexico as 'pilgrim of faith, of hope, and of love' ,March 23
- Waiting for the pope: Vatican flags, human wall -- and hope for peace ,March 23
- Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba benefits both Vatican and the Castros , March 23
- Pope tells Cubans to look beyond Marxism , March 23
- The pope in Mexico and Cuba , John Allen's weekly column. March 23
- Pope to find mixed political messages in Mexico trip , March 22