Pope Francis, who aided the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, plans to visit the island in September just before his trip to the United States.
Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, confirmed Wednesday that the pope’s rumored visit to Cuba was on, although he did not give a specific date or other details.
The Argentine pontiff plans to visit three U.S. cities: Washington where he will meet President Barack Obama on Sept. 23 and address Congress, New York where he is scheduled to speak before the United Nations and Philadelphia where his itinerary includes the World Meeting of Families.
The Vatican was one of the third-party sites where secret high-level talks leading to the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement were held, and the pope also personally intervened by sending letters to both Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro urging them to find a way forward on issues that separated them. The talks culminated in the Dec. 17 announcement that Cuba and the United States planned to renew diplomatic ties.
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“I’m definitely interested in going,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. But he is waiting for more information on the papal trip before he decides whether to lead a pilgrimage to Cuba as he did when Pope Benedict XVI visited the island three years ago.
“I’ve had people suggest we should take a ferry boat,” said Wenski, who is already scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., with other Catholic bishops when Pope Francis visits. “There’s a lot of interest.”
Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, will likely find a receptive audience in Cuba.
A recent Bendixen & Amandi poll for Univision Noticias-Fusion and the Washington Post showed that 80 percent of Cubans on the island had a positive opinion of Pope Francis. His popularity ratings exceeded the runner-up — Obama — and easily outpaced the Castro brothers.
Francis’ visit to Cuba, coming at a time when the United States and Cuba are in the process of restoring diplomatic relations, is “like a home run with bases loaded in the seventh game of the World Series with the score tied,” said Miami lawyer Pedro Freyre. “Watch when he hits the streets of Havana.”
“This is monumental,” he said. “This pope speaks Spanish, he’s Latin American, and a Jesuit and Castro went to a Jesuit school. Everything fits. This is the pope that walks the street. He is very popular and will have a tremendous impact.”
Wenski noted that when Pope Francis was a Jesuit priest completing his doctoral studies in Germany, he was especially drawn to a painting of the Virgin Mary untying knots — a reference to undoing the knots of life. When he returned to Argentina, he had holy cards of the image printed up and distributed them widely.
Wenski said he believes that the Baroque painting — Mary Untier of Knots — is an apt image for Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba. “There’s nothing knottier than Cuba,” he said. “This trip is very interesting because there are so many knots in Cuba.”
“A lot of what the pope says will depend on how far along the United States and Cuba are in their negotiations,” said Andy Gomez, a Cuba scholar who took part in the 2012 pilgrimage to Cuba. So far the countries have held three sets of talks in their quest to restore diplomatic ties and open respective embassies but they still have differences.
“I hope [the pope] pushes for human rights and meets with dissidents and the opposition,” said Gomez. Before and during Benedict’s visit, dissidents reported they were detained or placed under house arrest and their attempts to meet with the pope were rebuffed.
“The other big question will be what he will do about Cardinal Jaime Ortega,” Gomez said. As mandated by church rules, Ortega submitted his resignation as archbishop of Havana in 2011 when he turned 75, but it wasn’t accepted by Benedict. Francis’ potential pick as Ortega’s successor has been a subject of wide speculation.
Wenski noted that in the United States, the pope is scheduled to deliver two very important speeches: One before the U.N., which has condemned the embargo against Cuba, and the other before Congress, which has voted to uphold the embargo.
It would be the third papal visit to Cuba in 17 years.
“The presence of his holiness in Cuba will be memorable. He will receive the warmest hospitality of the Cuban people,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said at a news conference during a visit to Brussels.
“Each of the popes has had a very positive impact in Cuba. These visits of the Holy Fathers help civil society grow,” Wenski said. “Francis’ visit will be impactful, too. I am prepared to be surprised.”
In 1998, Pope John Paul II made a five-day pilgrimage to Cuba. Not long after that visit, Christmas was restored as a national holiday and the church has continued to gain space in Cuban civil society.
The church is now allowed to train priests and run social programs and, in a first since the revolution, the government recently approved a permit to build a church in Santiago de Cuba and another is under construction in Havana. But there is still a huge shortage of priests and nuns on the island, which was officially atheist from 1962 until 1992.
Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2012 to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary with the legend Our Lady of Charity imprinted on it. Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre is now revered as Cuba’s patron saint.
During Benedict’s visit to Santiago, El Cobre and Havana, he made little mention of politics but prayed for guidance for “the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom, liberty and reconciliation.” Benedict also was critical of the U.S. embargo.
“Benedict brought the symbolism of the Roman Catholic Church but his discussions with the government were pretty limited,” Gomez said. “I hope Pope Francis will bring much more.”