A Tale of Two Catholic Nations -- Benedict Will Visit Devout Mexico, Communist Cuba
Andrea Rodriguez; E Eduardo Castillo, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
MEXICO CITY - For his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America, Pope Benedict XVI has chosen the region's most Roman Catholic country - and its least.
In Catholic Mexico, towns throw parties for their patron saints, pilgrims prostrate themselves at shrines and many people still cross themselves every time they pass a church. In Cuba, the churches are mostly empty and until the 1990s, believers were barred from the Communist Party.
What the two countries on the pope's weeklong itinerary share is a disaffection with a German pontiff known as a staid academic who is uncomfortable with Latin America's mix of Catholicism and popular mysticism, and its legions of unsanctioned saints.
For many Catholics, the papal visit to Mexico starting March 23 is long overdue, given that it has more Catholics than any other Spanish-speaking country.
In Cuba, the trip is seen as the Vatican's recognition of the church's work nudging the Communist government to release political prisoners and institute economic reforms. That effort has given the church an outsized political role, despite the fact that practicing Catholics make up only 10 percent of the population.
In both nations, there is hope that Pope Benedict's visit will close an alarming distance between the Vatican and a region shaped by Catholicism.
"In seven years as pontiff he has never visited Hispanic America," said Bernardo Barranco, a specialist in contemporary Catholicism at the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico. "The pope has shown a clear preference for Europe."
The biggest challenge for Benedict is that he is not John Paul II.
Devotion still runs high for the pope's predecessor, who honored Mexico by making it his first trip outside the Vatican and coming back four more times. He is known as "Mexico's pope."
John Paul had an age advantage; he was 58 when he came here, while Benedict is turning 85 next month. …