March 28, 2012 // Uncategorized

Papal trip to Mexico and Cuba

Pope meets Fidel Castro before leaving Cuba

By Cindy Wooden

HAVANA (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI met former Cuban President Fidel Castro in the apostolic nunciature in Havana March 28 and answered the ailing former leader’s questions, the Vatican spokesman said.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said he was watching the two men through a window, then he spoke with the pope about the conversation, which seemed very animated.

The pope said Castro, who was raised a Catholic, asked about the reasons for the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, about the role of the pope and about the pope’s thinking about the larger philosophical questions weighing on the minds of people today.

The meeting lasted about 30 minutes, Father Lombardi said.

“In the end, Commandante Fidel asked the pope to send him a few books” dealing with the questions he had, the spokesman said.

Father Lombardi also said Castro had told Pope Benedict that he had followed the pope’s entire visit on television, and Castro had remarked that he and the pope were about the same age. The pope will celebrate his 85th birthday in April, and Castro will turn 86 in August.

The pope said he told Castro, “Yes, I’m old, but I can still carry out my duties,” Father Lombardi said.

In a statement published on the government’s papal visit website, the former president had said he would be “very pleased” to meet Pope Benedict.

“I decided to ask for a few minutes of his time,” although he said he realized the pope’s schedule in Cuba March 26-28 was rather full.

Castro had met Blessed John Paul II twice: first in 1996 at the Vatican and then in 1998, when the late pope visited Cuba.

Pope asks Our Lady of Charity to protect, guide, help suffering Cubans

By Catholic News Service

Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in the church dedicated to her in El Cobre, Cuba, March 27. The pope arrived to shrine as a pilgrim, joining thousands of people who have visited to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

EL COBRE, Cuba (CNS) — Entrusting people to Mary’s maternal care is a normal Catholic practice, but when Pope Benedict XVI prayed that Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre would wrap her golden mantle around the people of Cuba, it was particularly poignant.

For 400 years, Cubans — believers and nonbelievers alike — have brought their sorrows and joys before the little statue of Mary, and even Cuba’s communist rulers have claimed her as a cultural icon of the Cuban struggle for freedom and equality.

When Pope Benedict visited the Virgin’s shrine March 27, he joined the thousands of pilgrims marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue, and he echoed the prayers of many of them for a future marked by less poverty and greater freedom.

“I have entrusted to the mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans,” he said.

With only Cuban bishops and priests, his Vatican entourage and a choir present inside the shrine of La Caridad, as the image is known, Pope Benedict first knelt in prayer before the Eucharist, then he stood and recited the special prayer that the Cuban bishops composed for the fourth-centenary celebrations.

He went up to the statue, lit a candle and stood in silent prayer for several minutes while a choir sang the “Salve Regina,” or “Hail, Holy Queen.”

Hundreds of pilgrims and visitors waited outside for a glimpse of the pope and a few words from him.

Leaving the shrine, the pope stood on the steps and told the crowd that the Virgin’s “presence in this town of El Cobre is a gift of heaven for all Cubans.”

On an island where families have been divided by exile, emigration and imprisonment, the pope assured the people that while inside he prayed to Mary “for the needs of all who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, for those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty.”

He said he prayed for Cuba’s young people that “they may be authentic friends of Christ and not succumb to things which bring sadness in their wake.”

Pope Benedict prayed for families who live their faith and transmit it to their children and, especially, for the families “who offer their homes as mission centers for the celebration of Mass” in a country where the government restricts the building of new churches and where there is a severe shortage of priests.

The pope told the people to follow Mary’s example and build their lives “on the firm rock which is Jesus Christ, to work for justice, to be servants of charity and to persevere in the midst of trials.”

“May nothing or no one take from you your inner joy, which is so characteristic of the Cuban soul,” he said, before leaving the shrine to the rhythmic clapping and cheers of the crowd.

Dream come true: Florida woman leaves poem at El Cobre shrine

By Tom Tracy

Nancy Hilburn, a native of the Dominican Republic and resident of Jacksonville, Fla., is accompanying Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine who is leading a pilgrimage to Cuba March 26-29 to see Pope Benedict XVI in both Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Hillburn penned a poem to Cuba's Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre left a copy of it at the famous shrine during her trip to Cuba. She is pictured in a March 5 photo. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (CNS) — Last summer, before the press reported that Pope Benedict XVI was considering a visit to Cuba, Nancy Hilburn’s Cuban-American friends introduced her to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.

Her friends took her to the Miami shrine to Cuba’s patroness, and Hilburn began taking an interest in the iconic image revered across Cuba by religious and nonreligious alike.

The Jacksonville, Fla., resident, a native of the Dominican Republic, researched the history of “Cachita,” as the Virgin is sometimes called, and penned a poem, “The Charity that She Teaches Us,” as a tribute to the storied image that, in 1612, was discovered floating in the Bay of Nipe by three workers from a copper mine near Santiago de Cuba.

On March 26, Hilburn landed in Santiago de Cuba and, with other U.S. pilgrims, traveled unexpectedly to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre.

Hilburn said she had given away her only copies of her poem, so when the pilgrims learned they would get to visit El Cobre, she scribbled down what she could remember and left it in the shrine.

“I got to linger there with the people and just wish I had more time at El Cobre,” Hilburn said, adding that she left her prayer in a section of the church where generations have left petitions and gifts to Mary. “It was a unifying experience to be there and hear the prayers of other pilgrims and of the local people — universal prayers that we, as Catholics, all pray.

“We are all praying for a miracle for Cuba, and today people of different ideologies reached out with love to each other,” she said.

Hilburn said she sees a metaphor in the story of the Cuban image — which legend holds went missing at least three times and reappeared in new locations — and the Cuban diaspora, whose members have also moved from place to place, establishing new homes in Florida and around the world.

Hilburn’s poem is a kind of conversation between Our Lady of Charity and a woman who is in her presence, with themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.

She translated a passage to English: “With your sporadic movements you were warned us of what was to come: An exodus, a separation of loved ones, but you would follow us and appear in this New World in which the Cuban pueblo has forged a brotherhood with all of those who emigrate to Florida: It is your new Jerusalem.”

A member of St. Paul Parish in Jacksonville, Hilburn and a small group of pilgrims traveled to Cuba under the spiritual direction of Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine who, as a young Cuban, fled to the United States under Operation Pedro Pan. They traveled with several hundred others from Florida and around the country on a pilgrimage to Cuba organized by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski.

Hilburn praise Bishop Estevez, noting his history of exile and his return to Cuba on behalf of the church for the purpose of dialogue across often-tense borders.

“It is obvious that he loves his people,” she said. “You don’t want to see your country in distress. The Catholic Church is taking back its roots in Cuba; and that can only be a good thing.

“It does take someone with a big heart and with an open mind to do what he is doing,” she said.

Hilburn said she understands the pain and resentment felt by Cuban-Americans toward the communist regime and that some would prefer that the pope not travel to Cuba, but she said she hopes all Cubans will move toward reconciliation.

“For a country to prosper and see the light again, it must have God,” she said.

Cheers, tears, prayer: Cuban-Americans join Cuban pilgrims in Santiago

By Tom Tracy

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (CNS) — When the Miami Air charter plane touched the ground March 26, applause and shouts of “Thanks be to God” rang out in the cabin, and Julia Malcolm had tears on her face.

It was Malcolm’s first time back in Cuba since leaving 51 years ago.

“I am crying but now; I am very happy that we will be with the pope and, like him, will kiss the ground,” said Malcolm, a member of St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Malcolm’s charter flight was part of a pilgrimage organized by the Archdiocese of Miami. More than 300 pilgrims traveled first to Santiago de Cuba, then on to Havana. At least 500 others from the archdiocese were expected to join them in Havana.

“I am so proud of what they have done in getting everything organized for this pilgrimage, because the pope is coming; otherwise I would not have come,” Malcolm said.

Julia Palmer of Kentucky accompanied Malcolm, her mother. Palmer said she and her two sisters wanted to seize the opportunity of the pope’s visit to bring their mother back to Cuba.

“This is a trip of a lifetime, to see Cuba through the eyes of my mother,” she said.

After landing, the several hundred U.S. pilgrims were treated to a surprise: They had a chance to visit the historic Shrine of Our Lady of El Cobre, about 30 miles away. The Virgin of Charity of El Cobre is Cuba’s patroness.

Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau, Bahamas, said he was impressed with the condition of the shrine and the local Cubans he encountered there.

“I was impressed with how well it was maintained,” Archbishop Pinder said, noting he has been in Cuba before, but never Santiago de Cuba or El Cobre. “It is not falling apart like … so many buildings in Havana. It speaks of a certain depth of faith of the people to keep up the church that way.

“It was certainly a place that touches the heart of people,” he added. “I don’t know any place in the U.S. where people leave their precious personal objects as they do here. There is something authentic about it; it is not overdone as a tourist place, but is a place of pilgrimage to Our Lady.”

That afternoon, the Florida pilgrims joined approximately 200,000 others for Pope Benedict XVI’s Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square.

In a covered area where the Cuban bishops and priests vested before the Mass, Xiomara Bedoga Ocana, a sacristan at the cathedral in Santiago de Cuba who helped prepare the vestments for the Cuban bishops and visiting clergy, made new friends and prayed with several of the Cuban-American pilgrims.

“With all the difficulties we have had to go through in this country, it is something that we had the visit of two popes,” she said, referring to Blessed John Paul II’s 1998 visit. “Our faith grows, and it will continue to grow after this.”

A very pregnant Myrna Bustamante came with her “pretty much about to be born” Catholic child.

“I might go to the Maternidad at any moment now,” she said, referring to the local birthing hospital. “I couldn’t go this afternoon because of the heat, but I wouldn’t miss this evening’s Mass.”

“Cubans listening to the pope’s words will be blessed, but their hearts will also open up to believe and improve their behavior,” said Claudia Arias, a member of a local parish youth group.

Another member of her group, Aimee Echevarria, added, “Those who don’t believe will be persuaded to have faith in God and the church, Jesus Christ, and all the saints who can help us.”

Omar Cedeno Fernandez, 55, said although he considers himself a true Catholic and Pope Benedict “a conciliator,” he would like to hear the pope explain his past links with Nazism.

“Like Benedict, I consider Marxism-Leninism a retrograde ideology that is past its useful phase,” said Cedeno. “And so, only the Gospel endures the test of time. I think he can be the mediator between the people of faith and the Cuban government.”

Nestor and Lourdes Machado of Coral Gables, Fla., said they met a Cuban Salesian seminarian during the Mass and were impressed with his faith.

“To see the people of Cuba so excited and so spiritual is wonderful,” said Nestor Machado. “The fervor of that young seminarian was very touching.”

Mary Travis of St. Petersburg, Fla., was beaming near the end of Mass.

“We did it all,” she said. “We arrived, were told to follow our guide, the guide got lost and we were left squashed, cheek to jowl, in the crowd, and then we came back out here to watch at a distance,” Travis said. “Our senses are filled with the tropical climate here tonight and the joy of the people. And we timed it perfectly to go receive holy Communion; there was a fervor, and we are very touched.”

Several U.S. bishops were among the Vatican officials and Cuban prelates concelebrating the Mass.

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley relished the scene in the square before removing his vestments.

“All of these papal visits are a moving experience, but to have it here in Cuba and on the feast of the Annunciation was very moving,” the cardinal said, “I know that Catholics around the world have high hopes for Cuba, and hopefully this will result in greater freedoms for the people of Cuba.

“All the attention that this brings to Cuba is a healthy step toward greater freedoms that the world would wish for Cuba,” he said, adding that the papal visit would also increase Cubans’ faith.

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Contributing to this story was Wallice de la Vega.

Pope bids warm farewell to Mexico, heads to Cuba

By David Agren

SILAO, Mexico (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI bade Mexico a warm “adios,” emphasizing he meant, “Remain with God,” concluding a trip marked by outpourings of faith and affection from people in the world’s second-most populous Catholic country.

“I leave full of unforgettable experiences, not the least of which are the innumerable courtesies and signs of affection that I’ve received,” Pope Benedict said March 26 in his closing remarks before departing for Cuba.

The pope used his departure remarks to exhort Mexicans “to be good citizens, conscious of their responsibility to be concerned for the good of all, both in their personal lives and throughout society.”

“In the name of millions of Mexicans, thank you for a visit we will never forget,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon said at the departure ceremony.

During his four-day trip, Pope Benedict received the keys to the cities of Leon and Guanajuato, met with Calderon and celebrated Mass for a crowd that the Guanajuato state government estimated at 640,000. He also greeted Mexicans who lost loved ones to violence.

Pope Benedict recognized the outpourings of affection. The evening of March 25, he emerged from Leon’s Miraflores College, where he was staying, to salute the assembled masses and be serenaded by mariachis in bone-white cowboy costumes.

“Never have I been received with such enthusiasm. Now I can say that Mexico is going to always stay in my heart,” Pope Benedict said in comments translated by his ambassador to Mexico, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and broadcast on national TV.

Enthusiastic crowds lined streets in the municipalities of Leon, Silao and Guanajuato for all of Pope Benedict’s movements. Many chanted, “Benedict, brother, you’re now Mexican,” reflecting the grand affection shown for the pope, who Mexican and foreign media outlets surmised in stories was less beloved in the country than his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II.

“This could be the only opportunity” to see the pope, said Benito Urrutia, an engineer working in the footwear industry underpinning the Leon economy. “It’s an important event, being close to the representative of Christ.”

“We came here for the love of the pope and to receive his blessing,” added artisan Irma Palomino, who began traveling at 4 a.m. and walked more than three miles uphill to attend the March 25 Mass.

Mexico’s national media gave plenty of coverage to politics during the visit and the “miracle” of uniting the country’s three main presidential candidates at the Mass, along with Calderon and his predecessor, President Vicente Fox, a Guanajuato native.

The visit came as Mexico’s Catholic population continues a gradual decline, measuring 84 percent in the 2010 survey. Auxiliary Bishop Victor Rodriguez Gomez of Texcoco expressed concern with the trend, but said the nearly 5 percent of Mexicans declaring no religious affiliation should be alarming to all Christians.

In Mexico, pope says social change will come with revival of faith

By Francis X. Rocca

SILAO, Mexico (CNS) — Visiting Latin America for the second time in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI offered a message of hope for social progress rooted in a revival of Catholic faith.

The overriding message of the pope’s public statements during his three days in Mexico, March 23-26, was that this troubled country, and the region in general, cannot solve their problems — which include poverty, inequality, corruption and violence — by following the prescriptions of secular ideologies.

Instead, the pope said, peace and justice in this world require a divinely inspired change in the human heart.

“When addressing the deeper dimension of personal and community life, human strategies will not suffice to save us,” the pope said in his homily during an outdoor Mass at Guanajuato Bicentennial Park March 25. “We must have recourse to the one who alone can give life in its fullness, because he is the essence of life and its author.”

Echoing his earlier critiques of liberation theology, a Marxist-influenced movement that found prominent supporters among Latin American Catholics during the 1970s and ’80s, Pope Benedict told reporters accompanying him on the plane from Rome that the “church is not a political power, it is not a party … it is a moral reality, a moral power.”

Yet the pope made it clear that he was not encouraging believers to withdraw into a private kind of piety uninvolved with worldly affairs.

“The first job of the church is to educate consciences,” he said, “both in individual ethics and public ethics.”

Christian hope, the pope told an audience that included Mexican President Felipe Calderon, does not merely console the faithful with the promise of personal immortality.

The theological virtue of hope, he said, inspires Catholics to “transform the present structures and events that are less than satisfactory and seem immovable or insurmountable, while also helping those who do not see meaning or a future in life.”

The practical expression of this inspiration, the pope said, is the church’s extensive charitable activities, which help “those who suffer from hunger, lack shelter, or are in need in some way in their life.”

That point seemed particularly relevant to the second half of Pope Benedict’s Latin America visit, to Cuba March 26-28, where he was to mark the 400th anniversary of the country’s Virgin of Charity of El Cobre.

Catholic charities in Cuba have become notably active in recent years, sometimes in cooperation with agencies of the state. After half a century of communist government and decades of official atheism there, Pope Benedict could hardly find more powerful evidence for the inadequacy of secular solutions than the church’s growing role in caring for Cuba’s poor.

Pope thanks Latin American bishops, urges continued evangelization

By Francis X. Rocca

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates a vespers service with bishops from Mexico and Latin America at the Cathedral of Our Most Holy Mother of Light in Leon, Mexico, March 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

LEON, Mexico (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI thanked Latin America’s bishops for their hard work in a troubled region and urged them to continue the evangelization campaign he launched with them at their first meeting five years earlier.

The pope spoke during a vespers service at Leon’s cathedral March 25, the second and last full day of his visit to Mexico. The congregation included about 130 Mexican bishops, along with representatives of other national conferences in the Latin American bishops’ council, CELAM.

Pope Benedict said the bishops deserved the “gratitude and admiration” due to “those who sow the Gospel amid thorns, some in the form of persecution, others in the form of social exclusion or contempt.” He also recognized that they suffered from shortages of money and personnel and “limitations imposed on the freedom of the church in carrying out her mission.”

The pope encouraged the bishops to persevere, citing scriptural passages from the Old and New Testaments as evidence that “human evil and ignorance simply cannot thwart the divine plan of salvation and redemption.”

Pope Benedict recalled his first papal trip to Latin America, in 2007, when he addressed the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, Brazil. That event launched the so-called Continental Mission to revitalize the church across the region, a campaign inspired by the new evangelization that Pope Benedict has made a priority of his pontificate.

The continental mission “is already reaping a harvest of ecclesial renewal,” especially by encouraging the reading of Scripture, the pope said.

Pope Benedict urged the bishops to encourage their priests and offer them, when necessary, “paternal admonition in response to improper attitudes.” He also reminded them that lay Catholics involved in the church’s educational and charitable activities should not “feel treated like second-class citizens in the church.”

Although his speech was principally about encouraging devotion in the faithful, not tackling Latin America’s social problems, the pope urged the bishops to “stand beside those who are marginalized as the result of force, power or a prosperity, which is blind to the poorest of the poor.”

“The church cannot separate the praise of God from service to others,” he said.

Following the vespers service, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, hosted the bishops at a dinner in the courtyard of the cathedral.

In a speech to his guests, Cardinal Bertone affirmed as a fundamental right the “freedom of man to search for the truth and to profess his own religious convictions, in public as well as private.”

“It is to be hoped that in Mexico this fundamental right will continue to be strengthened, conscious that this right goes much further than mere freedom of worship,” Cardinal Bertone said. Those words were an apparent reference to a proposed constitutional amendment, now before the country’s Senate, that would greatly expand the church’s freedom, among other ways, by making it easier to hold religious ceremonies in public and establish religious media outlets. For much of the 20th century, Mexican law prohibited church-run schools and the public display of clerical garb and religious habits.

Cardinal Bertone’s words were also relevant to Cuba, where the pope was scheduled to travel the next day and where the communist government still prevents the construction of new churches and strictly limits Catholic access to the media.

Human rights advocates in Cuba have been arrested after publicly appealing for meetings with Pope Benedict during his visit, and authorities have reportedly warned critics of the regime not to attend the pope’s public liturgies in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Havana.

Trust in God to help change society, pope says in Mexico’s heartland

By Francis X. Rocca

Pope Benedict XVI wears a sombrero as he rides through the crowd in the popemobile before celebrating Mass in Silao, Mexico, March 25. The pope was on a six-day pastoral visit to Latin America with stops in central Mexico and Cuba. (CNS photo/Tomas Bravo, Reuters)

SILAO, Mexico (CNS) — Celebrating Mass in the Catholic heartland of Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI told a nation and a continent suffering from poverty, corruption and violence, to trust in God and the intercession of Mary to help them bring about a “more just and fraternal society.”

“When addressing the deeper dimension of personal and community life, human strategies will not suffice to save us,” the pope said in his homily during the outdoor Mass at Guanajuato Bicentennial Park March 25, the second full day of his second papal visit to Latin America. “We must have recourse to the one who alone can give life in its fullness, because he is the essence of life and its author.”

Citing the responsorial psalm for the day’s Mass — “Create a clean heart in me, O God” — the pope said that evil can be overcome only through a divinely inspired change of the human heart.

Pope Benedict XVI wears a sombrero as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Bicentennial Park in Silao, Mexico, March 25. The pope was on a six-day pastoral visit to Latin America with stops in central Mexico and Cuba. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The pope made note of the monument to Christ the King visible atop a nearby hill and observed that Christ’s “kingdom does not stand on the power of his armies subduing others through force or violence. It rests on a higher power that wins over hearts: the love of God that he brought into the world with his sacrifice and the truth to which he bore witness.”

That message was consistent with Pope Benedict’s frequently stated objections to strategies for social progress that blend Christian social doctrine with Marxism or other secular ideologies.

“The church is not a political power, it is not a party,” the pope told reporters on his flight to Mexico March 23. “It is a moral reality, a moral power.”

In his Silao homily, the pope did not specifically address any of Latin America’s current social problems, but after praying the Angelus following the Mass, he recited a litany of ills plaguing Mexico and other countries in the region: “so many families are separated or forced to emigrate … so many are suffering due to poverty, corruption, domestic violence, drug trafficking, the crisis of values and increased crime.”

Speaking in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, which was a stronghold of the 1920s Cristero Rebellion against an anti-clerical national regime, Pope Benedict recited the invocation that served as the Cristeros’ rallying cry: “Long live Christ the King and Mary of Guadalupe.”

But reaffirming his message of nonviolence, the pope prayed that Mary’s influence would “promote fraternity, setting aside futile acts of revenge and banishing all divisive hatred.”

The presidential candidates from Mexico’s three main political parties attended the Mass, along with President Felipe Calderon and his family.

The Vatican said 640,000 people attended the Mass. Some Mexicans took long trips just to see Pope Benedict on his first trip to the country since being elected in 2005.

The journey was not easy for many. Thousands of the faithful walked more than three miles from parking lots in the town of Silao, 220 miles northwest of Mexico City.

“This is nothing too difficult,” quipped Jose Trinidad Borja, 81, a retired hardware store owner from Queretaro who boasts of having participated in the annual eight-day diocesan pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City for 65 straight years.

An army of vendors hawked water, coffee and tamales along the route in addition to Vatican flags and photos of Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, who, with his five visits, became one of the most beloved figures in an officially secular country.

“With Benedict, I feel something indescribable,” said Guadalupe Nambo Gutierrez, a retired secretary from Guanajuato City, who saw the pope in the colonial town March 24 and attended the Mass the following day.

Young men cheer as they wait in a crowd for Pope Benedict XVI to arrive to celebrate Mass at Guanajuato Bicentennial Park in Silao, Mexico, March 25. (CNS photo/Claudia Daut, Reuters)

Getting a ticket was another matter. Nambo won a raffle for some of the tickets the Archdiocese of Leon allotted to St. Joseph and St. James the Apostle Parish. Others simply decided to try their luck by showing up — and many could be seen outside the Mass site behind barricades guarded by federal police officers.

Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo said his diocese only received its allotment of 2,500 tickets 10 days before the Mass, making it difficult for parishes to plan trips for churchgoers. Still, all the tickets were claimed and more than 6,500 requests were made.

Most of those coming from Saltillo, in northern Mexico, traveled overnight and were expected to return immediately after the Mass. Some parishes opted not to send people to the Mass because of concerns about security along the route.

“We hope that things calm a little after this visit,” said Silao resident Jorge Morales as he walked to the Mass.

The previous evening, after a brief appearance before a crowd in Guanajuato’s main square, Pope Benedict privately greeted a group that included eight people who have lost relatives to violence, much of it drug-related, which has killed nearly 50,000 Mexicans over the last five years.

Addressing his remarks there particularly to local children, the pope called on “everyone to protect and care for children, so that nothing may extinguish their smile, but that they may live in peace and look to the future with confidence.”

On several previous international trips, Pope Benedict has met with local victims of clerical sex abuse, but no such meeting has been announced for this visit.

On March 24, sex abuse victims of the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, held a press conference to present a new book criticizing the Vatican’s failure to act against Father Maciel, whom Pope Benedict eventually disciplined and posthumously repudiated.

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Contributing to this story was David Agren.

Pope greets Mexicans affected by notorious crimes

By David Agren

GUANAJUATO CITY, Mexico (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI greeted Mexicans who lost loved ones in some of the country’s most notorious crimes, events that horrified Mexico and generated international headlines.

They were among people the pope greeted privately March 24 following his public appearance in the city of Guanajuato. No details were provided, although the office of President Felipe Calderon issued a list of the eight attendees and crimes that affected them.

Among the individuals meeting the pope was Maria Guadalupe Davila of Ciudad Juarez, whose son, Rodrigo Cadena, was murdered in a massacre while attending a 2010 birthday party in Villas de Salvarcar.

Veronica Cavazos, widow of Edelmiro Cavazos, the former mayor of Santiago, lost her husband in 2010, when police officers, working in cahoots with the Los Zetas drug cartel, betrayed him. The case was profiled by the CBS news program “60 Minutes.”

Maria Herrera, of Michoacan, had four sons: Jose de Jesus, Raul, Gustavo and Luis Armando Trujillo Herrera, simply disappear.

Along with the more than 47,500 deaths in Mexico attributed to drug cartel and organized crime violence, thousands more people have disappeared, often in acts known as “levantones,” which, unlike, kidnapping, involve no ransom demands. Reports of crimes such as extortion and kidnap for ransom have increased, too.

The president’s crackdown has proven divisive for some Catholics and church-affiliated human rights groups, who have called for the country’s spiritual leaders to focus on victims and denounce excesses committed by soldiers and police –difficult for some priests as Mexico has a history of tense church-state relations.

Additionally, clergy often prefer to maintain positive ties with local and national politicians, instead of raising thorny issues such as human rights.

The level of “victimization in Mexico is frightening,” said Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, who said he considered the violence sweeping Mexico — much of it committed by criminals who were once baptized as Catholics and still participate in acts of piety and invoke protection and intervention from saints — to be a failing of the church and diocesan ministries.

He called for the Mexican church to commit to the “better training of lay members” and to do so in a constant manner — not just when someone comes to the parish to receive sacraments.

A movement highlighting the cause of victims surged in 2010, led by Catholic poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered a year ago in the central city of Cuernavaca. His movement has been embraced by some leaders such as Bishop Vera and human rights groups, but has drawn little open support from the Mexican bishops’ conference.

Violence in Mexico was among the concerns of those heading to see Pope Benedict at a Mass March 25 in Silao.

“There are now kidnappings and extortion of simple people like us,” said Irma Palomino, whose family makes pottery in Guanajuato state.

Some people, she said, pay ransoms of 600,000 pesos, or approximately $47,000, even though they make just “100 pesos a day.”

Cuban official says government wants dialogue with pope

By Cindy Wooden

HAVANA (CNS) — Cuba’s foreign minister said his government is looking forward to welcoming Pope Benedict XVI and exchanging points of view with him, even after the pope used his in-flight news conference to criticize Marxist ideology.

Bruno Rodriguez, the foreign minister of Cuba’s communist government, was asked about the pope’s remarks March 23 during the opening of the Havana press center for the papal visit.

“We are looking forward to an exchange of ideas” during the pope’s visit March 26-28, he said.

The Cuban people have developed their government over a long history of “struggles for freedom and against slavery,” he said. The struggles include what “Pope John Paul II described as unjust and ethically unacceptable economic measures imposed from the outside,” Rodriguez said, referring to the U.S. economic embargo, which began in 1962.

“The social project of Cuba … is open to an exchange of ideas. It is a democratic and coherent social project,” Rodriguez said.

“Freedom is one of the supreme values of our culture and our people — the freedom and dignity of the people,” he said.

But Pope Benedict, during his flight March 23 from Italy to Mexico, responded to a question about the arrest of Cuban dissidents by saying, the “church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion.”

“Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to the truth today, we can no longer respond this way to construct a society,” the pope said on the plane.

However, he added that the “path of collaboration and constructive dialogue,” which Blessed John Paul initiated with Cuba’s communist regime, “is long and demands patience.”

“We want to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move toward a fraternal and just society” in Cuba, Pope Benedict said.

Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister, told reporters Cubans would welcome Pope Benedict with affection and would listen to him “with all respect.”

But he also said Cuba “has had to defend its sovereignty and independence under the most difficult circumstances. … We have struggled and continue to struggle for a free people.”

After Rodriguez opened the papal visit press centers in Havana and Santiago de Cuba — the first city on the pope’s Cuban itinerary — Cuban television began broadcasting special programs about the papal visit and the Catholic Church in Cuba. The specials kicked off with a piece on the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio outside Havana.

By March 23, when the program aired, a dozen of the 52 seminarians had already headed to Santiago de Cuba to participate in the Mass there. The other seminarians were going to rehearsals and organizational meetings for the Mass and other papal events in Havana, according to officials at the seminary.

Pope arrives in Mexico as ‘pilgrim of faith, of hope, and of love’

By Francis X. Rocca

Pope Benedict XVI greets children after arriving at Guanajuato International Airport in Silao, Mexico, March 23. Standing with the pope is Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and his wife, Margarita Zavala. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

SILAO, Mexico (CNS) — Arriving in Mexico on his second papal visit to Latin America March 23, Pope Benedict XVI said he came as a “pilgrim of faith, of hope, and of love,” promoting the cause of religious freedom, social progress and the Catholic Church’s charitable works.

Bells tolled and the assembled crowd cheered as Pope Benedict XVI appeared through the door of his Alitalia plane at Guanajuato Internal Airport in central Mexico. He was greeted by Mexican President Felipe Calderon and other dignitaries, including Archbishop Jose Martin Rabago of Leon and Archbishop Carlos Aguilar Retes of Tlalnepantla, president of the Mexican bishops’ conference and the Latin American bishops’ council, CELAM.

In his remarks at the arrival ceremony, Pope Benedict paid tribute to the Mexican people’s religious faith and reputation for hospitality, but he addressed the main part of his speech to all Latin American nations, noting that most of them “have been commemorating, in recent years, the bicentennial of their independence.”

The pope related the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity to challenges the region faces today. In doing so, the pope highlighted themes that he is likely to address again during his time in Mexico and Cuba, where he travels March 26.

Faith fosters social peace based on respect for human dignity, the pope said, adding that “this dignity is expressed especially in the fundamental right to freedom of religion, in its full meaning and integrity.”

That statement has special resonance given that the pope was speaking in the Guanajuato state, heartland of a 1920s rebellion by Catholic “Cristero” rebels against an anti-clerical regime.

Mexico long prohibited church-run schools and the public display of clerical and religious garb, but the country’s Senate is now considering an amendment to the constitution that would significantly expand the church’s freedom in areas, including education.

Catholics in Cuba still operate under severe restrictions under the communist government there.

Addressing an economically underdeveloped region plagued by violence, corruption and dramatic inequalities of wealth, the pope presented Catholicism as a force for social progress. Christian hope does not only console believers with confidence in an afterlife, he said; it inspires them to “transform the present structures and events which are less than satisfactory and seem immovable or insurmountable, while also helping those who do not see meaning or a future in life.”

“This country and the entire continent are called to live their hope in God as a profound conviction, transforming it into an attitude of the heart and a practical commitment to walk together in the building of a better world,” Pope Benedict said.

He then noted the concrete help that Catholics, motivated by charity, offer “those who suffer from hunger, lack shelter, or are in need in some way in their life.”

This charitable mission “does not compete with other private or public initiatives,” the pope said, and the church “willingly works with those who pursue the same ends.” That point was particularly relevant to Cuba, where Catholic charities have become notably active in recent years, sometimes in cooperation with agencies of the communist state.

Addressing his Mexican hosts once again as he concluded, Pope Benedict made an apparent reference to the country’s recent fighting among drug traffickers, which has killed an estimated 50,000 people over the past five years.

“I will pray especially for those in need,” the pope said, “particularly for those who suffer because of old and new rivalries, resentments and all forms of violence.”

Calderon told the pope, “Mexico feels honored to be the first Spanish-speaking country you’ve visited in (Latin America).”

The president touched on the difficulties Mexico has endured in recent years, including the current drought — the worst in 70 years — natural disasters and the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, which compounded an especially difficult economic downturn. He mentioned violence, too, which has claimed nearly 50,000 lives during his administration.

“In spite of it all, we’re still standing,” Calderon said, adding, “because Mexico is a strong people … a people of values.”

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Contributing to this story was David Agren.

Pope calls for patience in fight to bring freedom to communist Cuba

By Francis X. Rocca

A journalist records a video on a smart phone as Pope Benedict XVI speaks to members of the media aboard his flight to Mexico March 23. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT TO MEXICO (CNS) — En route to Latin America for his second papal visit to the region, Pope Benedict XVI called for patience with the Catholic Church’s effort to promote freedom in communist Cuba, and criticized Catholics who participate in illegal drug trade or who ignore their moral responsibilities to seek social justice.

The pope, flying to Mexico March 23, followed his usual practice of taking a few preselected questions from reporters on the papal plane.

Responding to a question about human rights in Cuba, where he will arrive March 26, and where opposition leaders have been arrested after publicly appealing for a meeting with him, Pope Benedict said that the “church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion.”

“Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to the truth today, we can no longer respond this way to construct a society,” the pope said.

But the pope said that the “path of collaboration and constructive dialogue,” which his predecessor Blessed John Paul II initiated with the communist regime, “is long and demands patience.”

“We want to help in the spirit of dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move toward a fraternal and just society” in Cuba, he said.

In answer to a question about dramatic inequalities of wealth in Latin America, Pope Benedict lamented what he called a widespread moral “schizophrenia” that stresses personal morality while ignoring social conscience.

“We see in Latin America and elsewhere that not a few Catholics have a certain schizophrenia with regard to individual and public morality,” he said. “In their private lives they are Catholics, believers, but in public life they follow other paths that don’t respond to the great values of the Gospel necessary for the foundation of a just society.”

While that assessment might have seemed to echo left-wing critiques of the oligarchies that dominate the politics and economies of many countries in the region, the pope declined a reporter’s invitation to endorse even a non-Marxist, nonviolent version of liberation theology, a movement which he severely criticized as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office in the 1980s and ’90s.

“The church is not a political power, it is not a party,” the pope said. “It is a moral reality, a moral power.”

Accordingly, the pope said, “the first job of the church is to educate consciences … both in individual ethics and public ethics.”

He called for promoting Catholic social teaching even to nonbelievers by an appeal to a “common rationality” which he said could overcome social divisions.

To a reporter from Mexico, who said the fighting among traffickers has killed an estimated 50,000 people over the past five years, Pope Benedict said that the church has a responsibility to “unmask evil, unmask the idolatry of money that enslaves man” as well as the “false promises, the lie, the swindle that lie behind drugs.”

“We must see that man has need of the infinite,” the pope said. “To make present the goodness of God, make present his truth, the true infinite for which we thirst, is the great duty of the church.”

The meeting with reporters, which lasted slightly over 20 minutes, ended on a light note with the presentation of gifts to the pope.

One local journalist gave the pope a silver medal struck to commemorate his visit to the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, a silver mining center. Another journalist, noting the pope’s recent encounters with modern information technology in the form of tablet computers and Twitter, gave him an iPod loaded with Mexican and classical music to entertain him on the flight.

After a 14-hour flight from Rome to Mexico, the pope was scheduled to visit the Archdiocese of Leon March 23-26. The flight will have taken him across seven time zones, to a city 6,000 feet above sea level. From Mexico, he will fly to Cuba, to visit Santiago de Cuba and Havana March 26-28. He will arrive back in Rome March 29 after a 10-hour flight.

It will be his third visit to the Americas, after the United States in 2008 and Brazil in 2007.

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