HAVANA (AP) — The Roman Catholic Church in Cuba has announced the dates and a partial itinerary for Pope Benedict XVI's much-anticipated visit to the island, the first by a pontiff since John Paul II's groundbreaking 1998 tour.
The church said in a statement Sunday that the pontiff will be in Cuba from March 26 to 28, following a visit to Mexico.
The itinerary outlined by the church is far less ambitious than that undertaken by John Paul 14 years ago. The 84-year-old pontiff will only be on the island for about 48 hours and appears to have no plans to visit important regional cities such as Santa Clara and Camaguey, both of which received John Paul.
Benedict will touch down on the afternoon of Mar. 26 in the western city of Santiago, Cuba's second largest, where he will be received personally by President Raul Castro. He'll then be driven through town in the glassed-in popemobile.
Benedict will make a private trip the following day to the sanctuary of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, then fly to Havana. In the capital, the pope will meet Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega and other church leaders.
That afternoon, he will have a private meeting with Castro. There is no mention of Benedict also meeting Fidel Castro, who is retired but often weighs in on world events through opinion pieces published in Cuban state-run media.
On Mar. 28, Benedict will perform Mass at the sprawling Revolution Plaza, where hundreds of thousands turned out to see John Paul II. The pope will depart following the Mass and a trip through the capital in the popemobile.
Benedict has been noticeably frailer and weaker in recent months, according to religious leaders and others who have seen him, which could partly explain the trip's limited scope.
The visit coincides with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre. But the timing also appears to reward the larger role the church has assumed in Cuba in recent years. Ortega personally negotiated the release of political prisoners in 2010 and 2011, and church magazines have become a forum for articles offering advice to Cuban leaders on a process of free-market reforms by Raul Castro.
The Cuban leader even cited Benedict's visit in announcing in December that Cuba would free 2,900 inmates as a humanitarian gesture, including a small number jailed for political crimes.
Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven/