Vatican: Pope Benedict studying a visit to Cuba next spring

Cuba’s Catholic Church rejoiced Thursday with news that Pope Benedict XVI plans a visit next spring, a trip that would highlight the Church’s rising status and unprecedented rapport with the communist government in recent years.

The Vatican announcement that the visit would help mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of our Lady of Charity sparked “great joy and hope,” said the Cuban Conference of Bishops.

There was no immediate comment from the Cuban government on the visit to Cuba and Mexico, described by Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi as being in the advanced stages of planning but not finalized.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega boasted to reporters in Havana that while the visit to large and heavily Catholic Mexico was understandable, the Cuba leg of the trip showed the island was “a priority” and “very special” for the Pontiff.

Ortega added that the island was “abuzz with the news,” although word of a possible papal visit to help Cubans celebrate the 400th Jubilee had been making the rounds for several months.

Benedict XVI’s visit would underscore the church’s growing role in Cuba and perhaps signal a government opening to the outside world, said Marco Antonio Ramos, a retired Miami Baptist pastor who writes on Cuban history and religion.

Yet, the trip should not be overestimated, Ramos added, noting that Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998 opened some spaces for the Catholic Church and other denominations but did not bring about any profound changes.

The first papal visit to Cuba since then would come at a time when the church is enjoying extraordinarily good relations with a communist government that expelled scores of priests in the 1960s and was officially atheist until 1991.

Ortega played key roles in ruler Raúl Castro’s decision to free more than 115 political prisoners over the past year, and to tone down the harassments of the activist Ladies in White by government-organized mobs in the spring of 2010.

The church also has been allowed to build a new seminary, launch a business school, run charity and educational programs for children, the elderly and the poor, and occasionally access the government’s mass media monopoly.

Huge crowds have turned out as a copy of the image of Our Lady of Charity, known as the Mambisa Virgin, has been carried from one end of the island to another in a pilgrimage designed as a prelude to the 400th anniversary celebrations next year.

The main image of the virgin, now kept at the El Cobre Basilica in eastern Cuba, was found floating in the Bay of Nipe by three fishermen in 1612, according to church history.

Church-sate relations in Cuba began improving after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and in 1998 the Polish-born John Paul II made a five-day visit to the island that brought hundreds of thousands to open-air masses.

The pontiff famously urged Cubans to not be afraid, and Cuba to open itself to the world and the world to open itself to Cuba. And church officials reported steep hikes in mass attendance, baptisms and church weddings.

Top Vatican officials have since made fairly regular trips to Cuba to meet with local church and government officials, although the number of practicing Catholics appears to have been slipping in recent years.

Lombardi told reporters in the Vatican that while a final decision on the trip to Cuba and Mexico will be made in a couple of weeks, the pope’s diplomatic envoys in Havana and Mexico City have informed those governments that he “is studying a concrete plan to visit the two countries.”

Cuba “really wants to see the pope,” the Jesuit priest added, and Benedict XVI wants to visit the island because he remembers John Paul II’s trip, “in which the Church and all the people lived a period of their history.”

Mexico was included because its Catholics and government have enthusiastically invited the pontiff to visit, he added, but no other country will be added to the trip. The 84-year-old has looked increasingly frail in recent public appearances.

Ortega turned in his resignation as archbishop of Havana on his 75th birthday last month, as required by Church regulations. But Pope Benedict, as expected, asked him to stay on, likely until the 400th Jubilee celebrations have ended.

Catholic activist Dagoberto Valdés, speaking by telephone from his home in Cuba’s western Pinar Del Rio province, said any papal visit can spark “an expansion of liberty … an experience of freedom that can be difficult to stop.”

More certainly, he added, Benedict XVI’s visit will help to further expand the level of religious tolerance on the island and respect for the Cuban church’s “social doctrine” — its role in the daily life of the country.