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.

Video: Themes of the papal trip to Mexico

Pope Benedict XVI flies to Mexico tomorrow morning for an important trip that will also include stops in Cuba. Watch as CNS Rome bureau chief Francis X. Rocca explores some of the themes of this weekend’s visit and some of the history of church-state relations in Mexico.

Things the pope will and won’t see in Cuba when he visits

The effects of Communist rule and the longstanding U.S. trade embargo make for an interesting societal landscape in Cuba — one that’s unfamiliar to many visitors. CNS correspondent Patricia Zapor and I, back from a recent visit to the island, compiled this list of things the pope will and won’t see when he is there.

Won’t See:

The back bumper of a vintage Buick Eight Special in Old Havana. (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

  • Mobile phones
  • New churches
  • American cars (post 1950s)
  • Commercial advertising
  • Good beer selection
  • The iPad
  • Fast-food joints
  • Church schools
  • Beef
  • Wealthy homes

Will See:

  • Phone booths
  • Old churches
  • Classic cars
  • Cigars
  • Rum
  • Free live music
  • Bicycle taxis
  • Baseball fans
  • Pork and chicken
  • Friendly people

World Water Day: More work than turning on the tap

Residents in Gukakot, South Sudan, have access to clean water since the installation of three wells in their village in January. (Courtesty Isaac's Wells)

Imagine having to walk an hour or more to a river, the only water source around, filling a couple of large jugs and then trudging back home over rocky ground or on a well-worn path through dense underbrush so your family can have something to drink and cook with for the day. Then imagine doing it again tomorrow, the day after, the day after that and every day.

That’s the reality for millions of people around the world. The United Nations said in February that 787 million people — 11 percent of the world’s population — have no access to safe, clean water and are at risk of contracting a water-borne illness or disease on any given day.

Today, the U.N.’s World Water Day calls attention to the importance of managing and sustaining fresh water for everyone. While the most vulnerable may be those who struggle to find safe water sources daily, they are not the only people at risk. Water supplies anywhere can face assaults from pollution and lack of sustainability to shortages caused by climate change.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace recognizes the importance of water as well. In a statement, “Water an Essential Element of Life,” timed for the Sixth World Water Forum March 12-17 in Marseille, France, the council said access to water is a human right and must not be made into a for-profit commodity dependent on market forces.

“There persists an excessively commercial conception of water which runs the risk of mistaking it for just another kind of merchandise and making investments for the sake of profit alone, without taking into account water’s worth” as a public good, the council said.

“There is a risk of not seeing one’s brothers and sisters as human beings possessing the right to a dignified existence, but rather seeing them as simply customers,” which leads to making water and sanitation available only to those who can pay, the council added.

Numerous development agencies and nonprofit groups also recognize that water is a human right and have sponsored water projects in some of the most isolated communities around the world.

In places such as South Sudan, water is an especially critical need.

Aleu Akot, one of the thousands of lost boys of Sudan who fled their homeland in the 1990s during the height of the country’s civil war and landed in the United States, has helped bring water to his village of Gukakot in Warab state.

Through Isaac’s Wells, a small organization based in Cleveland, the community now has three newly drilled wells. Akot said the project allows people who fled the region during the civil war to return to their homeland and live in peace.

“The people all around, they are very happy,” he told Catholic News Service from the home of Jackie Tuckerman, co-director of Isaac’s Wells. “One well will feed 2,000, 3,000 people in that area. Before they traveled to get water, and the water wasn’t clean. They still travel very far, but they will travel and get clean water there.”

That’s a far cry from what most of us experience. All we need to do is turn on the nearest tap.

Vatican Museums to offer visits under the stars

ImageVATICAN CITY — If you are planning a trip to Rome in the early summer or fall, then you may want to take advantage of visiting the Vatican Museums at night.

For the fourth straight year, the museums will be opening its doors to the public every Friday night from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. starting May 4.

The museums’ director, Antonio Paolucci, spearheaded the nighttime initiative in 2009 as a way to give Rome residents a chance to see a part of their heritage and identity.

Because the museumsclose Monday through Saturday at 6 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on the one Sunday a month they are open, local residents who work or go to school find it hard to fight the lines and see the museums.

But there is no reason tourists can’t take advantage of the extended hours, too, to not only avoid the lines but to get a whole different perspective of the museums and its art under the stars.

The museums’ normal schedule is Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Friday night openings, which must be booked in advance online, will be in effect from May 4 to July 13 and then pick up again Sept. 7 to run until Oct. 26.

Do check out the Vatican Museums’ website to see what special exhibits and initiatives are on offer. They offer a treasure hunt option for kids called the Family Tour.  With an audio guide (in English, Italian or Spanish) and map, families are led on a special itinerary where kids can solve some mysteries, answer riddles and hunt for some of the Vatican’s artistic treasures.

U.S. bishop featured by Canadian Catholic TV network

Our friends at Salt + Light TV in Toronto recently spoke with Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City for its series of one-on-one interviews called “Witness.”  Bishop Wester is the new chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Communications and a former chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration.

As the only Catholic bishop in Utah, he also is at the forefront of Catholicism’s relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So topics he discusses here include the differences between his native San Francisco and his current home city and how the Catholic Church and the Mormon community both emphasize family values and care for the poor. He also speaks eloquently on immigration reform and on contemporary challenges for the church in modern communications.