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Pope begins 23rd foreign trip, to Mexico and Cuba

Catholic World News - March 23, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI left Rome on March 23, to begin the 23rd foreign trip of his pontificate, his 2nd visit as Pope to Latin America. He will be in Mexico from March 23 to 26, then travel to Cuba, returning to Rome on March 29. As he boarded his morning flight from Fiumicino airport, the Holy Father appeared in public using a cane for the first time. Aides disclosed that he has been walking with a cane around the apostolic palace for several weeks, to ease discomfort from his arthritic knees. Because of his advanced age, Pope Benedict has generally avoided long trips abroad. His schedule for this trip is relatively relaxed, allowing ample time for rest after the international flight. And he will not visit Mexico City, the nation’s capital, where the high altitude might tax his strength. Instead the Pontiff will arrive Friday evening in the city of Leon. During his stay in Mexico the Pope is expected to address the problem of drug trafficking and the associated violence, which has reached frightening proportions in recent months. Some drug-trafficking gangs have announced an informal truce during the days of the papal visit. Archbishop José Guadalupe Martin Rabago of Leon has expressed confidence that Catholics will be able to attend papal events without fear of violence.

The Pope’s visit may also have implications for Mexico’s political situation, with presidential elections due this summer. Trailing in opinion polls, the ruling National Action Party (PAN) of President Felipe Calderon will hope to generate some excitement from the papal visit in a country where Catholicism remains strong even after years of aggressively secular rule.

From Mexico the Pope will continue on to Cuba, where he will face a different sort of political challenge. The Cuban government has shown a willingness to offer new scope to the Catholic Church, but opponents of the Castro regime fear that the government is co-opting the hierarchy, seeking to quiet complaints about human-rights violations. Church officials counter with the argument that negotiations have opened new vistas for religious activity, leading to greater freedom for all Cubans. Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, alluded to that argument when he said that Cuban officials must realize the need for “a climate of development, freedom, and reconciliation.”

During his stay in Cuba, the Pope is expected to meet privately with longtime dictator Fidel Castro, who is rumored to be seeking reconciliation with the Church as his health deteriorates.

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