Pontiff in mission to revive faith
Pope Benedict XVI makes his first trip to Spanish-speaking Latin America this week in a bid to revive the Catholic faith in the region, with visits to Mexico and Cuba.
The Church hopes the Pontiff’s visit will help boost the region’s declining number of Catholics amid a rise in rival religions, and social changes such as gay marriage and legal abortion which the Church sees as the threat to family values.
The six-day programme, starting in Mexico tomorrow, takes into account the frail health of the 84-year-old Pontiff, who will oversee vast open-air Masses but also have time for rest and avoid travel to high-altitude regions in Mexico.
The Mexican government has promised maximum security amid a wave of drug violence that has left more than 50,000 dead across the country since 2006.
The archbishop of Leon, Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago, even called on local drug gangs to call a truce during the visit.
The Pope wants to “restructure Mexico on Christian values which are in the DNA of its people,” said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s second most senior official.
Mexico, where 83 per cent of the population has been baptised, faces “formidable challenges, first of all those of violence, corruption, drug trafficking, which demand the engagement of all the religious, civil, (and) social authorities,” Cardinal Bertone said.
Pope Benedict will arrive in Mexico’s central state of Guanajuato, where he will spend three nights in the city of Leon.
He will meet the faithful in the nearby colonial city of Guanajuato on Saturday and hold vespers in Leon Cathedral on Sunday with bishops from South and North America.
He will also hold a vast Mass on Sunday in the regional Bicentennial Park, which sits below a towering statue of Christ the King on Cubilete Mountain. Hundreds of thousands are expected to greet the Pontiff.
The Pope, however, is also likely to face criticism over the Vatican’s management of Mexico’s most famous paedophile offender, Marcial Maciel, the founder of the conservative Legion of Christ order who was accused of molesting dozens of boys before his death in 2008.
The previous Pope, John Paul II, visited Mexico five times and made a historic visit in 1998 to Cuba, where he played a part in persuading the communist regime to open up to the world.
The greatest proportion of the world’s Catholics – 28 per cent – live in Latin America, according to the Vatican. However, Pope Benedict is only on his second visit to the region after a trip to Brazil in 2007.
On Monday the Pope is scheduled to travel to Cuba, where he must be careful to avoid creating friction between the Communist regime and the Church, which plays a leading role in the island’s social sector.
Tensions in Cuba have been running high ahead of the visit, with a series of protests and arrests among dissidents calling on the Pope to push Havana’s leaders to allow greater political freedom.
The Pope hopes to encourage religious fervour in the secular nation, and a big turnout is expected from the Catholic community – around 10 per cent of the population – at Masses in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.
The Vatican however said the Pope will not meet with Cuban dissidents.
Pope Benedict’s visit commemorates the 400th anniversary of Our Lady of Charity, a statue of Mary found in the sea and Cuba’s patron saint, who is revered for her miracles.
The Pontiff will meet President Raul Castro on Tuesday at the presidential palace in Havana. A meeting with former long-time leader Fidel Castro has neither been scheduled nor ruled out.