Papal Pilgrimage in Latin America
By: Tomás A. Granados / Photos by Ismael Francisco
Vatican officials have expressed satisfaction with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico and Cuba, the two countries chosen for his first pilgrimage to Spanish-speaking America where he advocated that the peoples of both nations achieve a future of peace and fraternity.
Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi considered that the Supreme Pontiff's itinerary of Mexico (March 23rd to 26th) and Cuba (March 26th to 28th) had a historical character marked by encouragement to the church to grow as a community capable of serving the society in which it is found.
An unusual item of this first tour of Spanish America by Pope Benedict XVI is its coinciding with a worrying situation for the Vatican of the evident decrease in the number of Catholics in that region. According to statistics from senior ecclesiastical authorities, the percentage of believers in Mexico remained above 90% of the population up to 1980, but by 2010 it had dropped to about 84% - still much higher than Cuba's 10%.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of this visit is the contact established for the first time between Mexicans and Cubans and the reserved German Pope, born Joseph Ratzinger. An academic of the Church, and distrustful of certain popular religious practices in Latin lands that include saints not recognized by the Catholic Church and rites of santería a religion of African origin, he was surpassed in congeniality by his predecessor John Paul II.
Benedict XVI must be very satisfied for having congregated huge multitudes throughout his travels, above all in the highly Catholic region of Guanajuato in central Mexico. Here, thousands cheered his passage, an event that made the Holy Father confess that he hadn't received such a welcome anywhere else in the world during his seven years as pontiff.
Later, the Pope travelled to Cuba to fulfill a visit framed within the Jubilee Year for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre. Venerated as the Patron Saint of Cuba, in 2011 the image was carried in a massively attended procession throughout the island, an event never seen in the country during the last 50 years.
The activities of the Holy Father in Cuba were disseminated throughout the country by television, including the holding of Mass in open plazas in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Havana which were attended by over half a million people. There was also a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of El Cobre where the original image of the Virgin of Charity - found some 400 years ago by three seafarers during a storm in the waters of the Bay of Nipe, in the extreme eastern tip of the island – is located.
According to leaders of the Cuban Catholic Church, Benedict XVI's visit to the Island was successful and government authorities, also pleased with the papal visit, accommodated a request from Benedict XVI to restore, this year, the religious holiday of Good Friday which had been unobserved on the island for over 40 years. The official proclamation that this holiday will be permanently observed is now in the hands of Cuba's State Council.
In the final stage of his tour, the Pope was welcomed in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba with a ceremony led by President Raúl Castro, with whom he had previously held official conversations in Havana.
The Supreme Pontiff has promised to continue praying so that “the nation continues moving forward and being the home of and for all Cubans.”