HAVANA (AP) — Pope Francis begins a 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States on Saturday, embarking on his first trip to the onetime Cold War foes after helping to nudge forward their historic rapprochement. He will be offering a show of solidarity with Cubans and making clear that Hispanics in the United States are the bedrock of the American church.
The visit boasts several firsts for history’s first Latin American pope: Francis will become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress and he will also proclaim the first saint on U.S. soil by canonizing the controversial (and Hispanic) missionary, Junipero Serra.
Francis will also be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, becoming the third pontiff to visit Cuba in the past 17 years — a remarkable record for any country, much less one with such a tiny Catholic community. And he will join them in grabbing the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution.
It’s largely unknown territory for the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit, who has never visited either country and confessed that the United States was so foreign to him that he would spend the summer reading up on it. His popularity ratings are high in the U.S., but he also has gained detractors, particularly among conservatives over his critiques of the excesses of capitalism.
That has endeared him to Cuban President Raul Castro, who vowed earlier this year that if Francis kept it up, he would return to the Catholic Church.
But Francis has also been on record criticizing Cuba’s socialist — and atheist — revolution as denying individuals their “transcendent dignity.”
Pope Francis departed from Rome on a special Alitalia flight Saturday morning. The visit begins in Havana, where he will be greeted as something of a hero to Cubans who rightly credit him with helping restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Francis issued a personal appeal to Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro last year to end 50 years of animosity, and later hosted the Cuban and U.S. delegations to finalize the deal.
“This visit is like a breath of hope blowing over Cuba, more than anything because of the role that the pope played in the reestablishment of relations,” said Diego Carrera, a 71-year-old retired state worker in Havana.
The Cuban government launched a citywide effort to bring crowds into the streets of the capital, offering a day’s pay, snacks and transportation to state workers to gather along the pope’s route from the airport to the papal ambassador’s home. University students were also recruited to turn out.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the Holy See hopes the rapprochement will soon be followed by the removal of the U.S. embargo, which the Vatican has long opposed. On Friday, the United States eased rules for U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba and simplified procedures for telephone and Internet investments and money transfers to Cuba.
But a close Vatican aide of the pope’s, Guzman Carriquiry, said Francis’ key aim in travelling to Cuba was pastoral, not political.
“When I asked the Holy Father if he’s going to Cuba to follow the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba, he responded clearly this is neither the motivation nor the objective of the trip,” Carriquiry told a recent church conference. “The motive of the trip is to confirm the Catholic faith of Cubans and encourage a church that has suffered in the past decades.”
That’s not to say there won’t be politics on the agenda: It will just take place behind closed doors.
Asked if Francis would meet with dissidents or speak out about their plight while in Cuba, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the issue could come up in private discussions between Francis and Raul Castro, and their respective secretaries of state.
“You can discuss problems of this type without dealing with them in clamorous ways,” Lombardi said.
Francis will travel to the eastern Cuban city of Santiago to pray at the sanctuary of Cuba’s patron saint and stop in the city of Holguin en route, demonstrating once again his desire to visit the most peripheral of places that often get overlooked.
Francis arrives in Washington on Sept. 22 for the U.S. leg of his trip, greeted at Andrews Air Force Base by the first family.emind America of its greatness, of its long history of welcoming foreigners and of the freedoms, first sketched out in Philadelphia, that formed the foundation of American democracy and society.
“He will remind of us our nobility,” Dolan said in a recent interview in the New York City archdiocese. “He will affirm our heritage and in doing that he’ll also remind us of the moral imperative to live up to that.”