Waiting for the pope in Cuba

HAVANA — While Pope Benedict XVI was in the air on his way to Mexico this morning, Cuba’s foreign minister opened the official papal visit press centers in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. The pope arrives in Santiago de Cuba Monday and travels to Havana Tuesday.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez apparently told reporters that Cubans would welcome with pope with affection and listen to him with respect.

But when the press center opened, I was two blocks away trying to get my credentials at the foreign ministry’s office for international press. At this moment, I’m still trying to get the passes I need to cover the pope’s trip, but they kindly have allowed me into the press center.

Already staffed with dozens of assistants, telephone operators and folks handing out internet access cards, the press center is one of the clearest signs that Pope Benedict’s arrival is just days away.

Along the five miles of main road leading from the airport to Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, where the press center and press hotels are, there are two welcome signs. “Bienvenido a Cuba, Sua Santidad Benedicto XVI,” (Welcome to Cuba, Your Holiness Benedict XVI), both say. Other than those two signs, there’s not much else.

However, on the wall of a shuttered shop between the foreign ministry office for journalists and the press center, there was a small poster: “Bienvenido a Cuba, peregrino de la caridad” (“Welcome to Cuba, pilgrim of charity”). The poster refers to the main motive of the pope’s trip here — the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the icon of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.

Of course, if I had to wait outside the papal press center for my credentials, I could have enjoyed the beautiful view of the sea and some strolling musicians.

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

Washington’s cherry blossoms delightful sign of spring

Cherry blossoms at their peak at Tidal Basin in Washington. (CNS photo/Julie Asher)

It may be a cliche, as routine as spring’s blooms, but it has to be said: Everybody in Washington, no matter their place on the political spectrum, surely can agree on this: The cherry blossoms are a delightful sign of spring in the nation’s capital, and have been so for 100 years. Tokyo gave Washington 3,000 trees in 1912, and many of the originals are still standing. It is a ritual for folks who live here and for tourists who come here to walk around the Tidal Basin and past the Jefferson Memorial taking in the fragile beauty of the blossoms. And fragile they are — last evening a couple of small breezes created a mini-snowfall of petals. In some places the blossoms cascade over the walkway, with their branches bringing them close to the water’s edge. A number of people were enjoying an evening picnic under the canopy of blossoms; several photographers with their cameras and tripods set up and at least a couple of artists equipped with paints, canvas and easel were all at work capturing the beauty of the blossoms.

Cherry blossoms at National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. (CNS photo/ Julie Asher)

Some may be surpised to learn that these signature cherry blossoms can be found in several places in and around Washington. One place where they are in full bloom and as beautiful as at the Tidal Basin is the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A few of the trees also dot the nearby campus of The Catholic University of America. All of the blossoms are at their peak. With rain predicted this weekend, many of the flowers may be gone as many festivities get under way this weekend for the five-week National Cherry Blossom Festival,  so some of us feel lucky to have taken it all in when we did.