A senior Roman Catholic Church official announced Thursday that Pope Benedict XVI will visit Communist Cuba this upcoming spring, marking the first official visit by a pontiff in nearly a decade.
Although the official purpose of the trip is to make a pilgrimage to honor Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, the visit also holds meaningful insight into Cuba’s relationship to the Catholic Church.
The head of the Cuban Bishops Conference, Monsignor Jose Felix Perez said Thursday that the Pope has “a special affection toward the people of Cuba for the social conditions in our country,” the majority of whom claim to be Roman Catholic.
Cuba’s relationship with religion has been tested over the years.
As the U.S. State Department confirms, Cuba was officially an atheist nation during the Communist rule of Fidel Castro, which was from 1959 until a constitutional change in 1992.
The government now observes a separation of church and state, and residents are allowed to freely practice the religion of their choice.
Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, a clear sign that the old tensions between the Fidel Castro regime and Roman Catholicism were dissolving.
The pope called on “Cuba to open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba.”
Since this past visit, Cuba has gone to great leaps and bounds to reunify itself with the Catholic Church, according to reports.
In early December, current President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel Castro, met with the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, head of the National Council of Churches of Christ, to strengthen ties between the country and the religious organization.
The Catholic Church has also played an important role in Cuba’s politics, as well as human rights. In April 2010, Cardinal Jaime Ortega urged the communist government to free political prisoners and change the deficiencies in its policies.
In Nov. 2010, Cuba’s first seminary in more than a half-century was opened outside of the capital city of Havana.
Officials announced that Pope Benedict XVI might also be considering a visit to Mexico in the spring. Due to his fragile condition, the 84-year-old pope rarely travels outside of Europe, thus adding to the significance of this planned Cuba trip.