Pope arrives in Havana to meet at least one Castro

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the Havana, Cuba, ahead of a highly anticipated private meeting with President Raul Castro and, possibly, his older brother Fidel
REPORTING FROM HAVANA -- Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the Cuban capital today ahead of a highly anticipated private meeting with President Raul Castro and, possibly, his older brother Fidel.

The pope was greeted by children dressed in white, who presented him with flowers at the Jose Marti International Airport.

Earlier, Benedict prayed at Cuba's holiest shrine, the Our Lady of Charity Basilica, which honors the patron saint of the island.

He said he was praying "for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty.

"May nothing or no one take from you your inner joy, which is so characteristic of the Cuban soul," he said.

Benedict has been using his trip, only the second time a pontiff has visited the communist-ruled island, to deliver a subtle but pointed message on behalf of change and human rights. On Monday, during an open-air Mass attended by thousands, he told Cubans to build "an open society, a better society." And he has said Cuba's Marxist model is outdated.

Raul Castro, in welcoming the pope Monday to Santiago, defended (link in Spanish) the regime's careful economic transition. "The nation is invariably continuing to change everything that needs to be changed, in keeping with the highest aspirations of the Cuban people," he said.

It remains to be seen how hard the pope will press Castro on human rights and a wider role for the church when they meet later today. Also, it was widely assumed Benedict would also meet with Fidel Castro, Cuba's former president and leader of its socialist revolution in the 1950s. Both Castros were raised as Catholics and went to Catholic schools as children.

The pope's visit comes at a time of evolving and improving relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church. Once marginalized and repressed, the church today has a growing voice in human rights and social-policy issues.

Cuban officials say they welcome suggestions from well-meaning outsiders on improving the country's socialist economy, but made it clear on the eve of the pope's arrival that they are not contemplating wider political change.

"In Cuba, there's not going to be political reform. In Cuba, we are talking about updating the Cuban economic model to make our socialism sustainable and that has to do with the well-being of our people," Marino Murillo, a Cuban economic official, told reporters in Havana today, sounding a defiant note.

Murillo is overseeing a series of reforms that are aimed at improving productivity by making it easier for residents to open businesses, hire employees and, for the first time, to buy and sell private homes.

Murillo said it was essential for Cuba to step up productivity to satisfy the economic demands of ordinary Cubans and state-run enterprises and avoid having to import from abroad.

Although Cuban officials put new pavement and paint on a couple of streets the pope is expected to travel, there were few other outward signs today of a papal visit in the making. Posters bearing the pontiff's image were hung on scattered utility poles around the downtown area, but for the most part, life in Havana seemed little different from any other day.

Officials have constructed a massive altar and hung yellow-and-white banners along the sprawling Plaza de la Revolucion, a site over the years of countless public celebrations of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. Benedict is scheduled on Wednesday morning to deliver a Mass at the plaza -- an event viewed as the high point of his Cuba trip.

Though the mood appeared subdued, some residents said they looked forward to hearing what the pope would say to Cuba and the world. Some said they hoped he would make a forceful call to end the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba -- a plea also made by Pope John Paul II when he visited Cuba in 1998, the last time a pope visited Cuba.

"We are hoping for a miracle," said Rafael Rodriguez, who was selling fluorescent light bulbs from a stool in the picturesque but crumbling Old Havana section of Havana. "The pope can be a mediator for peace and tranquility."  


Pope urges Cuba to build an open society

Cuba opening to private enterprise spurs service sector start-ups

Pope Benedict to visit a Cuba on new terms with Catholic Church

-- Ken Ellingwood

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI is welcomed by children after his arrival at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana on Tuesday. Credit: Marcelino Vazquez / AFP/Getty Images 

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba

Pope Benedict arrives in Cuba

REPORTING FROM SANTIAGO, CUBA, AND LEON, MEXICO -- Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba on Monday, days after criticizing the island’s Marxism as an obsolete model in need of change, and immediately called for a future of “justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation.”

Benedict was greeted by President Raul Castro, senior Roman Catholic clerics and crowds of Cubans from the island and abroad in sunny, seafront Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city. People tapped drums and chanted Benedict’s name.

It marks the first papal visit to the Communist Party-ruled island since John Paul II’s landmark visit 14 years ago.

Benedict arrives at a time of major transition on the island, with the government slowly embarking on economic reforms unthinkable just a few years ago. But political change continues to lag. Dissidents, regarded by the government as subversives, say they’ve been ordered to steer clear of events related to the pope's visit.

Many of those awaiting the pope said they hoped his visit would foster more change.

Castro used his welcoming remarks at the airport to promise religious freedom in Cuba and to excoriate the "economic, political and media blockade" imposed by the United States against the communist government that in some way worsens "but will never separate us from our truth."

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Pope in Mexico meets with families of drug-war dead, missing

Pope Benedict XVI in Leon, Mexico

REPORTING FROM LEON, MEXICO — Pope Benedict XVI has met with relatives of Mexicans killed or missing in the country's bloody drug war, a surprise encounter that highlighted the theme of violence's toll on this society.

Benedict spoke briefly with each of eight people presented to him following his meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Saturday evening in the picturesque city of Guanajuato. The session with the relatives and victims had not been announced and came at Calderon's initiative, his office said.

They included Maria Herrera, four of whose sons went missing in Michoacan, Calderon's home state, during a business trip; Araceli Quintanilla, whose sister, a student, was killed in crossfire between drug gangs and authorities in the wealthy city of Monterrey; Norberto Ortega, who survived a kidnapping; Veronica Cavazos, the widow of a mayor who did not.

Also present was Maria Davila, whose son was killed in a massacre of 15 mostly young people during a soccer party in Mexico's deadliest city, Ciudad Juarez, in January 2010.

More than 50,000 people have been killed since Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels, and an additional 10,000 are believed missing. While many of the dead are traffickers and their henchmen, a growing number of innocent civilians has been caught up in the violence.

Pope Benedict, who has been criticized for not scheduling a meeting with victims of sexual abuse during his three-day visit to Mexico, decried the "evil" behind the drug trade and said the church had a duty to "unmask the false promises" that traffickers use to lure followers.

He continues to Cuba on Monday, the first time a pope has gone to the communist-ruled island since the late John Paul II's historic visit in 1998.


Mexico gears up for Pope Benedict XVI's first visit

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— Tracy Wilkinson 

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI rides through Leon, Mexico, upon his arrival Friday, March 23, 2012. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.


Mexico abuse victims denounce Vatican as Pope Benedict XVI visits

REPORTING FROM LEON, MEXICO -- Sexual abuse victims angrily accused the Vatican on Saturday of protecting a notorious Mexican priest for decades, and said they were dismayed that Pope Benedict XVI will not meet with them on his visit to the country.

Benedict has sat down with abuse victims in almost every country he has visited. But his spokesman said Mexican bishops did not request such an encounter here -- an omission that victims' advocates said was unconscionable.

The pope arrived in Mexico’s central Guanajuato state Friday and continues to Cuba on Monday. He was scheduled to meet with President Felipe Calderon later Saturday and will preside over an open-air Mass on Sunday that organizers say could draw more than 300,000 people.

A group that included abuse victims and experts in the field held a forum here in Leon to release a book that they say establishes "irrefutably" that Vatican officials knew of the egregious crimes committed by the late Rev. Marcial Maciel.

Maciel was the Mexican-born founder of the Legion of Christ, a very conservative and influential order that dates to the 1940s. He wielded enormous power and was considered a favorite of the late Pope John Paul II. After Maciel’s death, the church was forced to acknowledge that the priest had fathered at least three children with two women and for years had sexually assaulted seminarians and other youths.

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Pope, en route to Mexico, decries drug war violence

   Residents of Leon, Mexico, prepare for the arrival Friday of Pope Benedict XVI.
REPORTING FROM LEON, MEXICO -- Pope Benedict XVI, en route to Mexico, on Friday condemned the "evil" behind drug war violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the country. He also called for change in Cuba, where he will travel after Mexico.

Aboard the Alitalia jet that was bringing him from Rome to this conservative midsection of Mexico, Benedict said the Roman Catholic Church has a duty to steer people from the "false promises" that drug  traffickers use to lure followers.

"It is the responsibility of the church to educate consciences, to teach moral responsibility and to unmask the evil," he said, "to unmask this idolatry of money which enslaves man, to unmask the false promises, the lies, the fraud that is behind drugs."

As is his custom, Benedict spoke to reporters on the flight, accepting a few predetermined questions.

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Catholic Church seeks priests among unemployed young Spaniards

REPORTING FROM MADRID -- Spain has Europe’s highest unemployment rate, but one organization here is boasting plenty of job openings: the Roman Catholic Church.

A group of Spanish bishops has produced a recruitment video telling job-seekers, “I do not offer you a great salary. I promise you a permanent job.” It’s a tempting message in a dismal economy where one in four workers is out of a job, including nearly half of people under 25.

The promo video begins with a voice asking: “How many promises have they made you, which never were fulfilled?” Then nine priests take turns staring into the camera, extolling the practical merits of priesthood, particularly to those hurt by Spain’s weakened economy and the debt crisis.

“I do not promise you a perfect job. I promise you will be part of an amazing project,” one says.

“I do not promise you will live a luxurious life. I promise your wealth will be eternal,” says another.

Lifelong celibacy as a job requirement goes unmentioned.

The average salary for priests in Spain is about $1,000 a month,  less than the national average, but well above the poverty line for an individual earner. If housing is free, as is the case for many seminarians, that wage places them about equal to their single male peers in their 20s and 30s.

Despite Spain’s sharp turn toward secularism, the Roman Catholic Church does appear to be winning some recruits in this economy. The number of priests in Spain rose more than 4% last year, according to church figures, in stark contrast to a 25% decrease over the last decade.

In the recruitment video, promising an exciting life, testimonies are interspersed with images of priests in golden robes, who are shown marrying couples, praying over a man in a jail and a woman in a hospital bed. Another image shows young priests lying down side by side on the floor of a church. There is no mention of nuns or female recruitment.

“You will be with people who are suffering. You will confirm those who want to be strong. You will experience true happiness,” the voices say.

The two-and-a-half minute video is stamped with the emblem of Spain’s Episcopal Conference, a grouping of Catholic bishops, and appeared on the conference’s YouTube channel last week, before the celebration of the “Day of the Priest” held Monday. In a statement on its website, the conference said it designed the video hoping it would be shared on social networking sites.

More than 70% of Spaniards consider themselves Catholic, but less than 15% go to church regularly. Contrary to Catholic teaching, same-sex marriage and abortion are now legal in Spain.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Madrid in August for the Vatican’s World Youth Day, he was greeted by thousands of demonstrators angry about  government funding for the papal visit, at a time when ordinary Spaniards were suffering pay cuts and other austerity measures.


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-- Lauren Frayer

Video: YouTube video from Spain's Episcopal Conference.

Vatican issues report on Irish church child abuse investigation

REPORTING FROM ROME -– In a report summarizing the results of an internal investigation of Irish dioceses and seminaries, the Vatican on Tuesday acknowledged “with a great sense of pain and shame” that minors and young people had been abused by the very figures they trusted most.

The investigation, or Apostolic Visitation, was ordered by Pope Benedict XVI in response to the widespread sexual abuse of minors by priests in Ireland and subsequent coverup that had been detailed in at least two damning reports commissioned by the Irish government.

The Vatican said that in issuing the eight-page summary, “The Holy See re-echoes the sense of dismay and betrayal which the Holy Father expressed in his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland regarding the sinful and criminal acts that were at the root of this particular crisis.”

In that March 2010 public letter, Benedict promised to root out the problem, which had been ignored by church authorities for decades. The investigation involved four dioceses, four seminaries, including the Irish College in Rome, and religious orders in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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Mexicans love the pope --- that other one

Portrait of Pope John Paul II in Mexico City

REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Take a look around Mexico's most important Roman Catholic cathedral and you will observe reverence to the pope.  However, it's not the same pope who arrives in Mexico in less than a week.

The late John Paul II continues to dominate the spiritual vision of the faithful in Mexico, and probably much of Latin America. He came to Mexico five times in his long papacy, choosing Mexico as his first overseas destination.

Pope Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul upon his death in April of 2005, arrives in Leon, in Mexico's conservative central Guanajuato state, on Friday, before continuing on to Cuba three days later. It is his first trip to the Spanish-speaking Americas; he visited Brazil in 2007 and the United States the following year.

"We still love John Paul. We don't know Benedict," said Veronica Duran, who was at the cathedral Saturday, praying under a larger-than-life portrait of John Paul. 

"But we will get to know the new one," she added. Duran planned to travel to Leon to see the current occupant of St. Peter's chair. Gift shop at the cathedral in Mexico City

At the curio shop inside the cathedral --  where another large picture of John Paul is displayed (no Benedict) -- Isabel Mosqueda says medals, prayer cards and posters of John Paul are big sellers. Second only to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

Benedict? For 5 pesos, about 4 cents, you can buy a stamp-sized, laminated picture of him. Mosqueda says she's confident its sales will pick up, eventually.

It shouldn't be surprising that John Paul, seven years after his death, still figures so prominently in Mexican religious consciousness. He was a charismatic pontiff who embraced local cultures; Benedict is far more cerebral and staid. Also, Benedict was already an elderly man when he was chosen pope; John Paul had many vibrant, active years as he initially traveled the globe as a relatively young head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedict also arrives in Mexico at a time the church has taken on an increasingly politicized role, working arm in arm with the conservative federal government to fight issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, which have been legalized in Mexico City but not elsewhere in the country.

Meanwhile, at the Vatican on Sunday, Benedict, in his weekly appearance, asked the faithful to pray for him in his voyage to Latin America.


Will Pope Benedict XVI, headed to Cuba, meet Fidel Castro?

A region ascending, divided

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-- Tracy Wilkinson

Top photo: Catholics pray at an altar in the cathedral of Mexico City, under a large portrait of the late Pope John Paul II, on Saturday, March 17, 2012. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times. Lower photo: At the cathedral's souvenir shop, medals and pictures of John Paul are bigger sellers. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times


Will Pope Benedict XVI, headed to Cuba, meet Fidel Castro?

REPORTING FROM VATICAN CITY-–Pope Benedict XVI would be “available” to meet with Fidel Castro should the ailing Cuban leader request an encounter when the pope visits his country later this month, the Vatican spokesman said Friday.

Father Federico Lombardi told reporters at the Vatican that no meeting between Benedict and Fidel Castro had been scheduled but that “it is something that is possible” during the March 23-28 trip that will take the pope to Mexico and Cuba.

A private meeting between the pope and the former leader’s younger brother, President Raul Castro, is scheduled for March 27, when Benedict will be in Havana, Lombardi said.

If the older Castro “desires to meet the Holy Father, he will be available,” Lombardi said during a news conference detailing the papal voyage, Benedict’s 23rd international trip and first to the Spanish-speaking Americas.

Asked if the pope, who will be 85 next month, was in good health, Lombardi said, “If he is making this trip, it’s a sign that he’s fine.”

The pope will travel first to the city of Leon in Mexico’s central Guanajuato state, where during a three-day stay he will make a speech to 4,000 children, pray with cardinals and bishops from all Latin America and meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

He will then travel to Santiago, Cuba, where he will celebrate Mass at the sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity before moving on to Havana.

Besides the meeting with Raul Castro and a dinner with Cuban bishops, the pope will celebrate an open-air Mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, which the Vatican expects 600,000 people to attend.

Lombardi said no meetings with dissidents or groups opposed to the Castro regime were planned.

On Thursday night, a group of 13 dissidents occupying a central Havana church was ousted by police. Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega made the controversial decision to call the police, after securing a promise the dissidents would not be arrested. The group had been demanding that the pope address human rights abuses by the government.

Asked about the incident Friday, Lombardi said the Vatican had been briefed by the local church.  

“I understand that within the area of opposition there were various opinions about whether the occupation was a good initiative or not,” he said.

On a historical visit to Cuba in 1998, Pope John Paul II met with Fidel Castro and also publicly called for human rights reform and the release of political prisoners.

Lombardi said he did not know whether Benedict also planned to address human rights and freedom of religion while in Cuba, which according to the Vatican is about 60% Catholic, but whose people also practice Santeria and numerous other faiths.


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-- Sarah Delaney

Photo: In this photo from Jan. 25, 1998, then-President Fidel Castro of Cuba talks to Pope John Paul II after a Mass celebrated at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. Credit: Pool photo by Arturo Mari via Associated Press. 


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