On March 23-28, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI made his 23rd apostolic journey outside Italy since the beginning of his pontificate, this time visiting Mexico and Cuba. With 92 million Catholics (out of a population of 108 million), Mexico is the second largest Catholic country in the world (after Brazil). And on March 26-28, the Holy Father visited Cuba, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, patron of Cuba.
As usual, a press conference took place on the airplane during the 14-hour flight to Mexico. The Holy Father said, among other things:
"Thus the Church has the great responsibility to educate consciences, to teach moral responsibility and to expose evil, to expose this idolatry of mammon that only enslaves people; and to expose the false promises, untruthfulness and cheating that are behind drugs. We can see that human beings are in need of the infinite. If God does not exist, infinity creates its own paradises, an appearance of'infinitude'that cannot but be false. This is why God's presence and approachability are so important. It is a great responsibility before God the Judge who guides us, who attracts us to truth and to goodness, and in this sense the Church must expose evil, must make God's goodness present, his truth present, the true infinity for which we thirst. This is the Church's important duty, so together let us all increasingly try to do all we can. (...)
"In Latin America, and also elsewhere, among many Catholics a certain schizophrenia exists between individual and public morals: personally, in the private sphere, they are Catholics and believers but in public life they follow other trends that do not correspond with the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society. It is therefore necessary to teach people to overcome this schizophrenia, teaching not only individual morality but also public morality. We try to do this with the Church's Social Teaching because public morality must of course be a reasonable morality, shared and shareable by non-believers too, a morality of reason."
To the question of a journalist who recalled the famous words of John Paul II in Cuba in 1998, "May Cuba open itself up to the world and may the world open itself up to Cuba," Pope Benedict XVI replied:
"These words of the Holy Father John Paul II are still very up-to-date. … Today it is obvious that the Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality: it is no longer possible to respond to or to build up a society in this way. New models must be found, patiently and constructively. In this process, which requires patience but also determination, we intend to help in a spirit of dialogue, to avoid traumas and to offer assistance on the journey towards the fraternal and just society that we want for the whole world, and we mean to cooperate to achieve this. It is obvious that the Church is always on the side of freedom: freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. In this regard we contribute, as well as the simple faithful, to this forward journey.
Pope Benedict XVI (center) waves next to Mexico's President Felipe Calderon (right) and first lady Margarita Zavala as he arrives in Mexico, March 23, 2012.
On Sunday, March 25, over 640,000 enthusiastic Mexicans came to meet Benedict XVI for the summit of his pastoral journey: the open-air Mass celebrated at the feet of the giant statue of Christ the King on "El Cubilete" hill, located at the exact geographic center of the Mexican Republic, in Silao, near Leon.
Before reaching the Bicentennial Park for the Mass, Benedict XVI had flied in helicopter over the Sanctuary of Christ the King, on Cubilete Hill.
The story of this 20-meter (65 feet) statue of Christ the King, with his arms outstretched, is very special. A first statue was built in 1920 by Bishop Valderde of Leon at the summit of El Cubilete hill, which is 2,579 meters (8,460 feet) above sea level. The erection of a statue honoring Christ the King was considered anti-Constitutional and a challenge to the anti-Catholic government of that time, and it was dynamited on January 30, 1928. After several attempts, the fifth monument was completed in 1950, and has two parts: a basilica in the shape of a sphere which symbolizes the universe and, standing on it, the statue of Christ the King with two angels offering him two crowns: of martyrdom and royalty. The statue is the work of Monterrey sculptor Fidias Elizondo, and symbolizes the divine royalty of Christ, Lord of the universe.
The helicopter landed on the hill, where the popemobile was waiting for the Pope to bring him to the site of the Mass. As the crowd watched the Pope on giant screens, a black sombrero was launched from the crowd and caught by the Archbishop of Leon, who gave it to the Pope, who did not hesitate to wear it, to the great joy of all. (See picture.)
Here are excerpts from the Holy Father's homily:
"Dear brothers and sisters, by coming here I have been able to visit the monument to Christ the King situated on top of the Cubilete... This monument represents Christ the King. But his crowns, one of a sovereign, the other of thorns, indicate that his royal status does not correspond to how it has been or is understood by many. His kingdom does not stand on the power of his armies subduing others through force or violence. It rests on a higher power than wins over hearts: the love of God that he brought into the world with his sacrifice and the truth to which he bore witness. This is his sovereignty which no one can take from him and which no one should forget. Hence it is right that this shrine should be above all a place of pilgrimage, of fervent prayer, of conversion, of reconciliation, of the search for truth and the acceptance of grace. We ask Christ, to reign in our hearts, making them pure, docile, filled with hope and courageous in humility.
"From this park, foreseen as a memorial of the bicentenary of the birth of the Mexican nation, bringing together many differences towards one destiny and one common quest, we ask Christ for a pure heart, where he as Prince of Peace may dwell'thanks to the power of God who is the power of goodness, the power of love.'But for God to dwell in us, we need to listen to him; we must allow his Word to challenge us every day, meditating upon it in our hearts after the example of Mary (cf. Lk 2:51). In this way we grow in friendship with him, we learn to understand what he expects from us and we are encouraged to make him known to others."
On Sunday night, the sounds of a mariachi band and the lively enthusiasm that had characterized every moment since his plane landed Friday brought Pope Benedict to give brief off-the-cuff remarks in Italian, translated for the crowds by the apostolic nuncio:
"Dear friends, thank you very much for your enthusiasm. I am so happy to be with you. I have accomplished many journeys but I have never been received with so much enthusiasm. I will bring with me, in my heart, the impression of these days. Mexico will always be in my heart. I can say that for years I have been praying every day for Mexico, but in the future I will pray much more. Now I can understand why Pope John Paul II said:'I feel I am a Mexican Pope.'"
On March 26, Pope Benedict headed for Santiago de Cuba, where he was received at the international airport by Cuban President Raul Castro (who succeeded in 2008 to his brother Fidel, who is five years older). In his address, the Holy Father said:
"Many parts of the world today are experiencing a time of particular economic difficulty, that not a few people regard as part of a profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenceless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families. We can no longer continue in the same cultural and moral direction which has caused the painful situation that many suffer. On the other hand, real progress calls for an ethics which focuses on the human person and takes account of the most profound human needs, especially man's spiritual and religious dimension. In the hearts and minds of many, the way is thus opening to an ever greater certainty that the rebirth of society demands upright men and women of firm moral convictions, with noble and strong values who will not be manipulated by dubious interests and who are respectful of the unchanging and transcendent nature of the human person.
"Dear friends, I am convinced that Cuba, at this moment of particular importance in its history, is already looking to the future, and thus is striving to renew and broaden its horizons. Of great help in this enterprise will be the fine patrimony of spiritual and moral values which fashioned the nation's true identity…"
Benedict XVI is welcomed at the airport of Santiago de Cuba by President Raul Castro.
The Holy Father, dressed with a golden chasuble, celebrated a Mass in front of 250,000 people in Santiago de Cuba, on the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord to the Virgin Mary. The famous statue of the Virgin of the Charity of El Cobre was present near the altar, also dressed with golden garments.
This image of the virgin — a wooden statue about a foot high — was discovered in 1612 by three fishermen: a slave and two native Indians.
The statue of the Virgin of El Cobre
Two brothers and their slave, Juan Moreno, set out to the Bay of Nipe for salt. They needed the salt for the preservation the meat at the Barajagua slaughter house, which supplied the workers and inhabitants of Santiago del Prado, now known as El Cobre. While out in the bay, a storm arose, rocking their tiny boat violently with ongoing waves. Juan, the slave, was wearing a medal with the image of the Virgin Mary. The three men began to pray for her protection. Suddenly, the skies cleared, and the storm was gone. In the distance, they saw a strange object floating in the water. They rowed towards it as the waves brought it towards them. At last they were able to determine that it was a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus on her right arm and holding a gold cross in her left hand. The statue was fastened to a board with an inscription saying "Yo Soy la Virgen de la Caridad" or "I am the Virgin of Charity." Much to their surprise, the statue remained completely dry while afloat in the water. The statue was brought to the copper mine of El Cobre, and the first shrine was built in 1684. Pope Benedict XV proclaimed Our Lady of Cobre patron of the island in 1916. Pope John Paul II crowned the statue of Our Lady of Cobre during his visit to the island in 1998.
Here are excerpts from the Holy Father's homily:
"The feast celebrated today throughout the universal Church is the Annunciation of the Lord to the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation of the Son of God is the central mystery of the Christian faith, and in it Mary occupies a central place. But, we ask, what is the meaning of this mystery? And, what importance does it have for our concrete lives?
"In Christ, God has truly come into the world, he has entered into our history, he has set his dwelling among us, thus fulfilling the deepest desire of human beings that the world may truly become a home worthy of humanity. On the other hand, when God is put aside, the world becomes an inhospitable place for man, and frustrates creation's true vocation to be a space for the covenant, for the'Yes'to the love between God and humanity who responds to him. Mary did so as the first fruit of believers with her unreserved "Yes" to the Lord.
"For this reason, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, we cannot fail to turn our eyes to her so as to be filled with wonder, gratitude and love at seeing how our God, coming into the world, wished to depend upon the free consent of one of his creatures. Only from the moment when the Virgin responded to the angel,'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word'(Lk 1:38), did the eternal Word of the Father began his human existence in time. It is touching to see how God not only respects human freedom: he almost seems to require it. And we see also how the beginning of the earthly life of the Son of God was marked by a double'Yes'to the saving plan of the Father — that of Christ and that of Mary.
"This obedience to God is what opens the doors of the world to the truth, to salvation. God has created us as the fruit of his infinite love; hence, to live in accordance with his will is the way to encounter our genuine identity, the truth of our being, while apart from God we are alienated from ourselves and are hurled into the void. The obedience of faith is true liberty, authentic redemption, which allows us to unite ourselves to the love of Jesus in his determination to conform himself to the will of the Father. Redemption is always this process of the lifting up of the human will to full communion with the divine will."
Picture below: On the last day of his visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a Mass in Havana and met with former President Fidel Castro (aged 86, one year older than the Pope) at the apostolic nunciature.