By Alessandro Speciale
Religion News Service
VATICAN CITY (RNS) Two weeks before Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to touch down in Cuba, a small group of protesters occupied a church in central Havana, asking that a message with their requests be delivered directly to the pope.
Their action was swiftly condemned by church authorities as "illegitimate and irresponsible." The group remained in the church for two days, and only left Thursday (March 15) after being assured by a top church leader that they could return home without police interference.
The episode illustrates the challenges that Benedict will find in Cuba during a March 23-29 trip that will also include a stop in Mexico. But it also highlights the good relationship that the Catholic Church has built in recent years with the island's communist regime.
The trip will be the pontiff's second visit to Latin America, which is home to almost half of the world's Catholics. Benedict visited Brazil in 2007.
During his trip, the pope will meet political leaders from both countries and, according to the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, he might even have a brief encounter with longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, though it is not on the official agenda yet.
In Mexico, Benedict will not travel to the Mexico City -- the capital city's high altitude made it an "inadvisable" stop for the 84-year-old pope -- but will visit the central city of Leon, in the Guanajuato region.
"The timing of the visit is not very good," said Luis Garcia Orso, a Mexican Jesuit who teaches theology in Mexico City. With national elections looming in July, the pope will arrive just before the campaign kicks off.
"Mexican bishops have stressed that he comes to give hope to the country during a difficult time marked by violence," said Garcia Orso, but opposition to the ruling National Action Party remains "suspicious" of the visit's election-year timing.
In Mexico, Benedict will find a country that is still strongly Catholic, but where, like elsewhere in Latin America, church membership is falling as a result of both the spread of secularism and the growing influence of evangelical groups. Despite strong opposition from the church, Mexico City in 2007 became the first state in Mexico to legalize abortion.
The Catholic Church's standing in the country has also been harmed by revelations surrounding the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the conservative Legionaries of Christ order. After Maciel's death in 2008, it emerged he had sexually abused youths for decades and even fathered at least two children.
It was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) who ordered an investigation of Maciel and restricted him to a life of prayer and penance in 2006. But despite his practice on previous trips, Benedict is not scheduled to meet with abuse victims during the visit, Lombardi said.
After three days in Mexico, the pope will leave for Cuba on March 26.
The official reason for Benedict's visit is to mark the 400th anniversary of the El Cobre sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patroness whose cult has revived in recent years as the church's role in Cuban society has grown stronger.
A group of Cuban-American pilgrims, as well as several bishops led by Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, will be in Cuba for the visit.
The Vatican opposes the U.S. Cuban embargo, which it considers "useless," and relations between the church and the regime have warmed in recent years. But tensions remain.
On Sunday (March 18), Cuban authorities rounded up some 70 members of the group Damas de Blanco (Women in White) during a demonstration in Havana to mark the 2003 arrest of 75 political dissidents, many of them the sons and husbands of the women activists.
In 2010, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and successor as president, asked Havana's Cardinal Jaime Ortega to organize the release of the political prisoners, who mostly went into exile in Spain. Yet the women's marches continue.
"The quiet dignity of the Damas stands in stark contrast with the acts of those who are standing in the way of the basic aspirations of the Cuban people," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama administration's National Security Council.
According to Cuba's ambassador to the Holy See, Eduardo Delgado Bermudez, relations between Rome and Havana have become "easier."
The church supports the regime's tentative steps toward economic reform, he said, but the Cuban government and the church also share a common "spiritual concern" against "consumerism" and Western culture's exclusive focus on "material things."
Pope Benedict XVI gestures on the boat in front of the Cologne Cathedral during his trip on Rhein River on August 18, 2005 in Cologne, Germany. Pope Benedict XVI is in his native Germany for a four-day visit to celebrate the XX World Youth Day during his first travel outside Italy as the pope. (Photo by L'Osservatore Romano-Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
Oswiecim, POLAND: Pope Benedict XVI visits the Auschwitz camp 28 May 2006, in Oswiecim. Pope Benedict XVI ends Sunday his pilgrimage to Poland with an emotional and significant visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest death camp set up by the Nazis on Polish territory. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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Istanbul, Turkey: Pope Benedict XVI speaks with Mustafa Cagrici, mufti of Istanbul, as he visits the Blue Mosque ,30 November 2006. Benedict XVI, only the second pope in history -- after John Paul II in Damascus in 2001 -- to set foot in a Muslim house of worship, turned towards Mecca. (OSSERVATORE ROMANO ARTURO MARI/AFP/Getty Images)
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George W. Bush shakes hands with Pope Benedict XVI on his arrival to the White House.
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Pope Benedict XVI (R) greets Angolan local dancers on March 21, 2009 at the 'Stadio dos Coqueiros' in Luanda, duirng the Pope's meeting with the Angolan youth. After visiting Cameroon, Pope Benedict XVI is in Angola for the second length of the first african trip of his pontificate. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Pope Benedict XVI (L) stands on a boat next to Vatican State Secretary Tarcisio Bertone during a trip from Kalkara ferry to the Valletta waterfront on April 18, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday expressed his personal 'shame and sorrow' to victims of paedophile priests at a surprise meeting during a visit to Malta. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the Madonna statue in Fatima, on May 12, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI arrived today at Fatima, one of Christianity's most popular shrines, cheered by tens of thousands of flag-waving pilgrims. Benedict, the third pope to visit Fatima, toured the shrine's vast esplanade, which turned into a sea of colour as the huge crowd waved yellow and white Vatican flags and hats, as well as the red and green of Portugal. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI leaves following a mass at the Eleftheria Sports Centre in Nicosia on June 6, 2010 on the third and final day of the pontiff's visit to the mostly Greek Orthodox Mediterranean island. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
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SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 06: Prince Felipe of Spain (2L) and Princess Letizia of Spain (C) attend an open-air mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in front of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral on Obradoiro square on November 6, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The Pope is on a two-day visit to Spain. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI (C) is helped by assistants at the end of an open air gathering in central Zagreb on June 4, 2011. Pope Benedict XVI set off for Croatia on June 4 for a two-day visit aimed at reaffirming Christian values that he believes are under threat in increasingly secular societies across Europe. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI (C) is greeted by two Captain Regents (R), leaders of the Republic of San Marino, as he arrives at the 'Public Palace' and Government House, during his one-day visit to San Marino state, on June 19, 2011. The pope is paying his first visit to San Marino, the world's oldest sovereign state nestled on the eastern slopes of Italy's Appenine Mountains. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 19: Pope Benedict XVI waves from the Popemobile at Cibeles square during a via crucis during World Youth Day 2011 celebrations on August 19, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. Initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1985, World Youth Day youth-oriented events for the celebration of the Catholic faith are held every three years in a different country; this time in Madrid from August 16th to 21st, with Pope Benedict XVI in attendance. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
ERFURT, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead morning mass at Domplatz square in front of the Erfurter Dom cathedral on September 24, 2011 in Erfurt, Germany. The Pope later lead morning mass for tens of thosands of assembled pilgrims. The Pope is in Erfurt on the thrid of a four-day visit to Germany. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI waves to the Catholic faithful as he departs following Sunday Mass, at the national stadium in Cotonou, Benin Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. On Sunday at Cotonou's soccer stadium, Benedict presided over an open-air mass that drew thousands. During the mass, he ceremoniously handed over a detailed pastoral guide which articulates his spiritual vision for Africa.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this file photo taken on March 25, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile wearing a Mexican sombrero as he arrives to give a Mass in Bicentennial Park near Silao, Mexico. Turin's La Stampa newspaper reported Thursday, Feb. 14, 2014, that Benedict hit his head and bled when he got up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar bedroom in Leon, Mexico. The report said blood stained his hair, pillow and floor. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed the incident but said "it was not relevant for the trip, in that it didn't affect it, nor in the decision" to resign. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano)
Lebanon’s Christian Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai (L) greets Pope Benedict XVI before celebrating an open-air mass in Beirut's waterfront on September 16, 2012, on the final day of his visit to Lebanon. Pope prayed that leaders in the Middle East work toward peace and reconciliation, in his homily at an open-air mass where an estimated 350,000 people attend. AFP PHOTO/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE