By Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and confirming he will travel to Mexico and Cuba in the spring, Pope Benedict XVI called on the people of Latin America to hold firm to their faith.
During his homily at the Mass Dec. 12 in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope prayed that God would guide the decisions of the Latin American people, so they could progress in "building a society based on the development of good, the triumph of love and the expansion of justice."
Pope Benedict added that he intends "to make an apostolic trip to Mexico and Cuba before Easter to proclaim the word of Christ and to strengthen the conviction that this is a precious time to evangelize with a steady faith, a lively hope and an ardent charity."
Various Spanish language news outlets have reported the trip will take place between March 23 and March 29.
In addition to marking the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, the pope’s Mass marked the bicentennials of many Latin American countries, which gained their independence from Spain between 1810 and 1825.
The pope said he could not let the anniversaries pass without demonstrating "the joy of the church for the many gifts which God, in his infinite goodness, has bestowed on these beloved nations throughout these years."
A few days earlier, the Cuban bishops confirmed that the pope would visit the island nation and declared a Marian Jubilee year for the 400th anniversary of the country?s patroness, the Virgin of El Cobre.
The said the pope would come to Cuba as a "pilgrim of La Caridad," the popular name for the Virgin.
In a Dec. 8 pastoral letter, they declared a jubilee year from Jan. 7, 2012, through Jan. 6, 2013, and said Cubans need the joy of faith, the strength of Christian love, and the light of hope that can come from "a reunion with our Christian roots" and with the "enthusiastic reception of the teachings of Jesus Christ."
The bishops said it would be part of national observances of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the small statue of Mary found floating in the Bay of Nipe, which came to be the country’s most revered icon.
Since August 2010, a replica of the statue of the Virgin of Charity has been traveling around the country for a series of processions, prayer services and Masses. Record crowds have turned out for the religious events in every part of Cuba, exceeding the expectations of organizers, and meeting with no apparent resistance from the country’s communist government.
The tour of the replica, known as La Mambisa, has led to a new springtime of faith in the hearts of the Cuban people, the bishops said.
People have been spontaneously attracted to the Virgin "and undergo a peculiar inner harmony with her," they said, much as children bond with their mothers before words are spoken, through silences, songs, gestures and offerings.
This maternal language, "so dear and personal," has helped people recover values and helped meet the needs of the sick, those separated from their loved ones, prisoners and their families, young people, elderly and people worried by financial pressures.
"The Virgin of Charity is talking to us and offering us the best thing: God’s son Jesus Christ, our only savior," the bishops said.
They encouraged "all who can" to make a pilgrimage during the jubilee year to the shrine of El Cobre in the Archdiocese of Santiago de Cuba.
Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in January 1998, the first trip of a pope to the nation. The visit was considered significant for the opening it signified in the strained relationship of the church and the communist government, which has at times been brutal in its treatment of religious practice.
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