REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI used one of Latin America's most important religious days Monday to announce a trip in the spring to Mexico and Cuba.
It will be the first time a pontiff has traveled to the communist island since Pope John Paul II's historic journey in 1998. John Paul also became the first pope to visit Mexico when he traveled here on his first voyage abroad in 1979.
Benedict, at a special Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, called on the people of Latin America to build "a society based on the development of good, the triumph of love and the expansion of justice." He said his trip to the region comes at a "precious time" to support faith and hope among millions of Roman Catholics.
The Mass celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of Mexico, and the bicentennial anniversary -- give or take a year or two -- of many Latin American countries' independence from Spain.
The small Catholic Church in Cuba has taken an increasingly active role in winning the release of dissidents and other gestures of reconciliation. Mexico is home to more Catholics than any nation but Brazil, and is suffering a ghastly wave of drug war violence.
Benedict, most of whose travel is limited to Europe, has visited Latin America once before. In 2007 he made a pilgrimage to Brazil, where many faithful have abandoned the church in search of alternatives, including evangelical religions.
Benedict said his trip to Mexico and Cuba would take place before Easter.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: Pope Benedict XVI leads Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Monday. An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is to the left. Credit: Reuters