By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA
HAVANA — Cubans welcomed the news Wednesday that Pope Francis will visit in September, with many calling it a powerful reinforcement of his support for detente between the United States and Cuba.
The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis would visit Cuba on his way to the United States, but didn’t provide details or dates.
Francis has been credited with helping the United States and Cuba reach a historic rapprochement by writing to the leaders of both countries and having the Vatican host their delegations for the final negotiations. Francis’ visit to Cuba would be a way for him to push the process forward.
“His pastoral visit will serve to confirm his help for this process and the Church’s traditional interest in peace and the good of all people,” said Orlando Marquez, editor of a magazine published by the Archdiocese of Havana.
Francis is scheduled to visit three U.S. cities starting around Sept. 23. He will address Congress and meet with President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, address the United Nations in New York and attend a church rally for families in Philadelphia.
“His being in Cuba and then going to the U.S. means that he’s going to meet with both presidents. Symbolically, it’s the continuation of what he’s done, a message of closing distances between people,” said Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, spokesman for Cuba’s conference of Catholic bishops. “It’s a great help to this moment in history between Cuba and the United States.”
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI followed up with a 2012 trip during which he voiced the Vatican’s long-standing position that the U.S. embargo was unjust and only hurt the most vulnerable on the island.
Francis also has spoken out against the sanctions while also condemning socialism.
The church is planning to restore a dozen more churches, parish houses and other buildings in Cuba as part of quiet reconciliation between the Holy See and the government that has brought relations to a historic high point. Authorities have also given permission for the construction of the first two new churches in more than five decades.
The church and the Cuban government were in a state of open hostility in the years immediately after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power. But a thaw began in the 1990s as Cuba removed a constitutional clause declaring the country an officially atheist state. Pope John Paul II paid a momentous visit in 1998 and urged a new era of openness between Cuba and the world, saying that Cuba should “open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”
Experts say the percentage of Cubans who are practicing Catholics remains well below that of most of the rest of Latin America. Many of the practicing Catholics in Cuba rejoiced at Wednesday’s announcement.
“This visit by the pope, besides the help that he gave to detente between Cuba and the United States, gives me a lot of faith that life will get better and there are better days ahead for the Cuban people,” said Catalina Rita, a 65-year-old street performer.