Video: Why WYD? Americans in Rio explain.

U.S. pilgrims in Rio discuss their expectations for World Youth Day 2013.

Video: Homes opened for World Youth Day

Brazilian Catholics renew their faith when they open their homes to volunteers helping to run World Youth Day 2013.

Video: Rio hospital ready for pope

A look at the Franciscan hospital Pope Francis will visit during his trip to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day.

 

Video: Brazilians eager for pope’s visit

Catholics in Rio de Janeiro await Pope Francis’s visit for World Youth Day this month and examine the legacy of Blessed John Paul II’s visit to a slum.

Celebrating with Pope Benedict XVI in Cuba

Editor’s Note: Alleluia! As we celebrate Easter, we present the final blog of Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.,  from Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26-28 visit to Cuba.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Revolution Square in Havana. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

HAVANA — We had to get up early to walk to the sight of the papal Mass, which was to begin at 9 a.m. The streets were empty of cars as people were walking to Revolution Square, the same place where Blessed John Paul II offered Mass in 1998. The day was perfect with a bright blue sky. Many people coming for the Mass wore printed visors to provide shade and to remind people of the reasons for the event.

The crowd was made up mostly of Cubans; the day was declared a holiday by President Raul Castro. As in Santiago de Cuba, Castro was in his same spot at the front of the crowd in the middle of the plaza, along with other government officials. Some said the crowd was smaller than when Blessed John Paul was there, others said it was about the same or larger. Crowd estimates are hard to come by. By all standards it was a large crowd. Clearly people identify with the Catholic Church, even though some are not committed to it.

Again the image of Mary on the top of a van preceded the entrance of the Holy Father. It was placed near the altar with great devotion. For this Mass the Holy Father arrived on time. There were about eight cardinals and 35 bishops who concelebrated, a few more than at the Mass in Santiago de Cuba. The cardinals and bishops vested behind the altar in a monument area, which was built just before the revolution and is dedicated to Jose Marti.

The liturgies of Pope Benedict are very subdued and solemn. In fact, an announcement was made before each Mass asking that people refrain from clapping and waving flags. The people respected the pope’s wishes. At the end of Mass the pope walked out in front, waving, his face broad with a gracious smile. After Mass he went to meet Cuban seminarians who had gathered behind the altar. Cardinal Jaime Ortega stood with them, looking very proud.

Before the Holy Father left he met with Fidel Castro. Castro’s health has significantly deteriorated, apparently. According to Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican press secretary, the two men talked about aging, and Fidel asked the pope to suggest a book on spiritual reflection.

A choir sings during Pope Benedict XVI's Mass in Revolution Square in Havana March 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Just as Pope Benedict was to leave, a big storm came up just over the airport, delaying the departure. I was doing an interview in the CNN studio, on the 28th floor, and the view was spectacular, as you could see the rain over the airport and eventually, the sun shining through, casting bright white light over the area. My interview was interrupted as we watched the parting remarks by Raul Castro and the pope’s final comments. These were the pope’s most “political” words of this trip. Pope Benedict said Cuba is for all Cubans and there is a need to open dialogue with the human family of nations.

That evening, I and some others walked about seven kilometers, very exhausting. One can walk all over Cuba without fear. Guns are not allowed and violence is not apparent. Our path took us along the Malecon, the seawall, where the water was pretty rough that night. Waves breaking over the wall nearly got us soaked. It began to rain so we tried to get a cab, but by the time he came the rain had stopped, and we continued our walk.

Seeing the work of the church in Cuba

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Good Friday, was a holiday in Cuba, after the government granted a request from Pope Benedict XVI. Hundreds of Americans traveled to Cuba for the pope’s March 26-28 visit. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., traveled with pilgrims from Florida. Following is the second of three blogs he wrote for Catholic News Service.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

HAVANA — Breakfast was sparse but enough to get started. We met Maritza Sanchez, the director of Caritas Cuba, to visit with her staff and see some of their projects in Havana.

We had an opportunity to visit two projects at St. Barbara Church, located in a very poor part of the city. The parish has one Mass on Sundays and collects about $8. Today only a small percentage of Cuban Catholics attend Mass, and many blend their faith with native religions that came from African slave origins.

St. Barbara’s had a large group of elderly participants, many of whom live alone. They came carrying plastic containers to take food home. The feeding center is also an opportunity to socialize. I found it delightful to talk with the participants. I explained that my mom is going to be 100 in June, and they applauded. One elderly gentleman came up to say he was praying for my mom and asked if I would extend to her his greetings and best wishes.

Caritas also provides opportunities for women to have their hair done, which is so important for a sense of well-being. It is a moment when they feel cared for.

We also stopped by a feeding and nursery program for little ones. The children were gobbling their food and asking for more. Their smiles were precious and they seemed to enjoy interacting with us. Upstairs some of the littlest ones were taking naps, but of course they were eager to meet visitors and show off their toys. These youngsters were from marginalized families not able to receive other assistance.

We enjoyed a marvelous Cuban lunch with the staff of Caritas Cuba. Their ability and skills are obvious and their passion for the work impressive.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Havana is seen illuminated by Italian artist Gaspare Di Caro March 25. (CNS photo/Jorge Silva, Reuters)

After lunch Miguel Angel, who works with the HIV program, took us on a tour of the city. Havana is an amazing city. Marvelous architecture graces its neighborhoods. Gracious buildings with pillars and columns adorned with impressive designs can be seen all over Old Havana. Some areas are in the process of being renovated with UNESCO funds. One can see everywhere glimpses of a grand city that has fallen into disarray. Several of the large plazas have been restored and are impressive, but right next door are streets and buildings that are disastrous.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Havana is marvelous, a beautiful place of worship. But there is a serious lack of priests in Cuba. A new seminary has been built on the outskirts of Havana, but only about half of the priests in Cuba are native. Others come from around the world, not unlike our situation in the Diocese of Tucson. Some of the churches in Old Havana are no longer churches but turned over for other purposes.

Most billboards around the city are political in nature, calling for more socialism. Only recently has the government allowed people to buy and sell cars and property. Lack of that right gave people no incentive to take care of their property. Around the streets you see old Soviet cars and vintage American cars, often used as taxis. The old city, despite the challenges, has a marvelous charm. One can see why many tourists visit Cuba, even though for U.S. citizens, tourist travel is illegal and visits for other reasons are difficult.

We visited the fort and harbor area, which offers a great view of the very impressive Havana skyline. The harbor is large and beautiful. It still has a hand-operated lighthouse, where a man attends to the light personally.

We enjoyed supper at a local restaurant. The rice and black beans are very nutritious. Sleep came easy after a long but productive day.

The visit that gave Cubans a Good Friday holiday

Editor’s Note: Today, Good Friday, is a holiday in Cuba, after the government granted a request from Pope Benedict XVI.

Hundreds of Americans traveled to Cuba for the pope’s March 26-28 visit. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., traveled with pilgrims from Florida. Following is the first of three blogs he wrote for Catholic News Service.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Miami airport was abuzz with excitement at 5:30 a.m. Travelers mixed with reporters carrying cameras and microphones. More than 300 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Miami, their priests and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski were headed for Santiago de Cuba on two chartered 737s to join in the visit of the “Peregrino de la Caridad” (the pilgrim of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba), Pope Benedict XVI. A delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was joining them.

Archbishop Wenski went from speaking to reporters in Spanish to Creole and then to English. He greeted members of the Knights of Malta, business leaders and people of Cuban descent who had not been back to their homeland since they were babies, as well as elderly Cubans who were thrilled to be returning to a land that was still home and which they love, despite having left decades earlier.

The pilot of our Miami Air flight explained that the company flies charters all over the world, including troop deployments. He was excited to be making this trip, he said, first because it was bringing us to see the Holy Father, and second, because it was his last flight now that he was turning 65 and had to retire. We told him that we hoped it would not be our last flight.

U.S. Pilgrims from Florida and elsewhere pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of El Cobra before Pope Benedict arrived in Cuba. (CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

We arrived at Santiago de Cuba and stepped into a land that has had a blessed and difficult history. The day glowed with sunshine as we headed out on eight buses to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. The lush, green countryside is a stark contrast from Arizona.

The sanctuary at El Cobre had been spruced up for the visit. We approached along a street lined with banners welcoming Pope Benedict. Inside the image of the Virgin had been brought down to the sanctuary of the church from above the altar, where it is usually venerated. Flashes of light surrounded the image as people took photos. I knelt at the railing to offer a prayer for the people of Cuba, that they might realize their dreams and build a country of which they could all be proud.

Along the side aisles of the church were museum-style cases containing baseballs, one of Cuba’s favorite sports, and sports jackets and memorabilia from talented Cubans who have succeeded in realizing a bright future. One case contained prayers and photographs of the sick and loved ones lost. Church is a place to bring your struggles, your successes, your anxieties and fears to place them in Mary’s hands as did the couple in Cana, trusting that she would bring them to her son.

Out in the street, vendors were selling images of La Virgen, proud of their work and hopeful that someone would buy something. We wandered into the neighborhood that surrounds the church. As is often the case, the poor live in hovels around the church, as if holding onto the faith as that which brings them hope. We stopped at a couple of houses and were greeted with marvelous smiles, especially from the little ones who enjoyed seeing strangers visit. The street was in serious disrepair but it did not prevent one boy from riding his bike up and around deep potholes and minor obstructions, trying to get home. The neighborhood seemed excited about the pope coming to their community. Many were too young to remember Blessed John Paul II’s visit in 1998.

The group went to lunch at a restaurant right along the shimmering Caribbean. Rice and black beans are a Cuban staple, and the meal was delicious. Toward the end of lunch, someone looked up and cried, “Il Papa!” and people ran to the edge of the porch to see the Alitalia plane flying overhead. You could almost see the Holy Father waving to us as people waved enthusiastically from the ground. Later, many of the group watched on a grainy television in the bar of the hotel as the pope descended the stairs of the plane and was greeted by President Raul Castro.

We boarded our tourist buses to make the journey back to the site of the outdoor Mass. From a long way out, people holding Cuban and Vatican flags lined the streets, waving as we passed, cheering and filled with expectations. All the streets along the route were closed to traffic but were jammed with pedestrians. Castro had called for a holiday on the day the pope visited Santiago and another on the day of his Mass in Havana.

As we left our bus, we were swept up in a huge crowd that flowed peacefully down the streets. It was like a river of people curving their way downhill, a wave of people of all ages who had walked many miles to get to the celebration site. Some of the people from Florida broke down in tears as they saw throngs of their sisters and brothers, flocking to see the Holy Father in a country whose constitution only abolished atheism as the state creed in 1992, and a country from which they had to flee to practice their faith and to find their liberty.

Pilgrims from Florida joined the crowd before the papal Mass in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba,. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The bishops vested in an area very near to the altar site. We found our places to the side of the main altar right in the sun. One could look out from the high altar and see people filling the whole square as clouds mercifully began to block the sun. The crowd was singing and chanting, enjoying one another’s company as they waited for the pope to arrive. Castro and other government leaders were sitting in the first row, chatting with one another as they joined the waiting crowd.

During a lull in the activities, when things were very quiet, a man from the crowd, yelling at the top of his voice, “Down with communism! Down with the dictator!” Immediately security rushed toward him and dragged him off. Some of the pilgrims later said he was beaten mercilessly.

A van carrying the statue of La Virgen de la Caridad entered the square, traveling around the field as people struggled to catch a glimpse. Excitement built until the Holy Father’s popemobile was seen coming down the road. People yelled and ran from one end of the square to the other to catch a glimpse.

The Holy Father appeared to have aged significantly from the last time I saw him almost two years ago. He appeared tired but seemed to push himself to be present to the people, to smile, and to reach out to them. The crowd was obviously pleased as they reached back.

Video: Cuba’s patroness and the basilica that houses her

Learn about Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patroness, and the basilica that houses her. Pope Benedict is honoring her tonight with an outdoor Mass in Santiago de Cuba, and tomorrow morning he will visit the shrine itself, about 30 miles away.

Previewing the papal trip to Cuba

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Cuba this afternoon. Take a minute to check out some of our preview material:

(CNS/Emily Thompson)

A schoolgirl poses for a photo at a park in Santiago, Cuba. (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

The stories above were from a reporting trip to Cuba last month by CNS visual media manager Nancy Wiechec and CNS staff reporter Patricia Zapor, who also spoke about their trip to Cuba on the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program this past weekend. Not to be missed is this photo gallery of some of the colorful images they brought back. (They also wrote a blog on the things the pope will and won’t see while in Cuba.)

In addition, CNS Rome senior correspondent Cindy Wooden, who has been reporting from  Havana this weekend while awaiting the pope’s arrival, wrote this Vatican Letter last week, The cry of the poor: Pope likely to repeat criticism of Cuba embargo, giving a Vatican perspective on the Cuba visit.

Also of note is this blog item by the chairman of Catholic Relief Services, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, on what this trip means to him.

CNS Rome bureau chief Francis X. Rocca, traveling on the papal plane to both Mexico and Cuba, also previewed the Cuba visit in this video report from Rome, focusing particularly on communism’s effect on the church since the rise of Fidel Castro more than 50 years ago.

The papal trip schedule, and more

(CNS/Emily Thompson)

The plane carrying Pope Benedict XVI and his entourage lands in Mexico in just a few hours to begin what could be his most significant trip to the Americas. Scroll down in this story for the minute-by-minute official schedule for both Mexico and Cuba.

Our new Rome bureau chief, Francis X. Rocca, who is on the papal plane with CNS Rome-based photographer Paul Haring, previewed the trip in this story, noting that the visits to each country will be relatively brief but also pointing out that the issues the pope will address affect an entire continent. If a video preview of the trip to Mexico is more to your liking, you can watch Rocca analyze expectations for the trip here.

What kind of Catholicism will the pope find this weekend in Mexico? CNS freelance correspondent David Agren produced these two stories exploring the state of the church in Mexico:

Teenage pilgrims show their religious pendants after Mass. (CNS/David Maung)

We also have a photo gallery of excellent images of the Mexican church the pope will see by freelance photographer David Maung

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