Following his highly successful visit to Mexico, Benedict XVI completed a three day visit (26-28 March) to Cuba, Latin America's least Catholic nation where fewer than 10% practise the faith. He took the opportunity to call for more freedom and political reform, met with Fidel Castro for 30 minutes as well as having a 55-minute closed-door meeting with President Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother.
On his arrival at the Antonio Maceo International Airport in Santiago de Cuba, Benedict welcomed the "new spirit of cooperation and trust" between Church and State in Cuba that was ushered in by John Paul II's visit.
In his homily at a huge public Mass in Havana on 28 March, attended by over half a million people, Benedict noted that Cuba had made progress towards full religious freedom and he urged the government to continue these advances "to strengthen society and to allow the Catholic Church to pursue her mission."
In the lead-up to the Pope's visit, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of San Cristobal of Havana, told L'Osservatore Romano that Benedict would find himself in a Cuba "geared to living a new period, both at the social as well as the religious level. A period of openings that must be consolidated."
Regarding how the situation had changed in Cuba since John Paul II's visit in 1998, the Cardinal said there had been progress: "The people express their faith today more than they did 14 years ago. The Church has become more present and the religious topic is no longer a taboo. The national pilgrimage of the Virgin of Charity was a genuine demonstration of popular faith and religious feelings, which seemed asleep or extinguished, and which manifested themselves in a very evident way. This is the spiritual climate the Pope will find."
The Cardinal pointed out that there are more pastoral workers, priests and nuns while the arrival of missionaries is permitted. The Church also has her own publications and more access to the media and public celebrations of the Church are made easier.
But despite these promising developments, after over 50 years of communism and even before that a generally lax level of practice of the faith, there remains much work to be done.
Unlike the Church's situation behind the Iron Curtain in countries like Poland, in Cuba the Church's structures were completely removed. The Church not only lost innumerable properties, but also the right to any kind of educational role, associations or lay organisations. As a result, religious ignorance and disinterest in the Catholic Church, especially among those those born before or shortly after the Communist revolution, became widespread, worsening an already poor situation.
However, over the past twenty years since the state ceased its official support of atheism the Church has made a gradual recovery as highlighted by construction of the new San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary on the outskirts of Havana.
When the seminary was opened in November 2010, it became the most prominent new religious building in the country since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The seminary can house up to 100 seminarians although currently there are only about 50 in residence, illustrating the shortage in vocations.
Cuba has about 6.7 million Catholics, making up just over 60 percent of the country's population of 11 million. However, there are only about 350 priests and 650 religious to serve the people.
When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, he blessed the cornerstone of the seminary, emphasising its importance for the future of the local Church. His historic visit also helped promote better relations between the Church and State in Cuba with the Church playing a significant role in obtaining the freedom of 52 Cuban political prisoners in 2010. The visit also opened the door for local churches to recover confiscated properties and to receive international aid to repair churches and even build new ones.
During Benedict's meeting with the Cuban President, which Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said was "cordial and serene", the two discussed problems of importance and the evolution of relations between the Church and the Government. One highlight was Benedict's proposal to Castro to recognise Good Friday as a public holiday.
If the government responds positively, it would be a further step forward for the liberty of the Church in Cuba, after Blessed John Paul II succeeded in convincing Fidel Castro to restore Christmas as a civil holiday.
Following his earlier criticisms of the Marxist ideology on which the Cuban system is based, Benedict gently pressed themes highly sensitive to the Cuban government in his prayer and short speech at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre near the eastern city of Santiago.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans," he said. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty."
During his departure speech at Havana's airport Benedict noted the need to "reject immovable positions and unilateral viewpoints which tend to make understanding more difficult and efforts at cooperation ineffective." He also significantly alluded to the continued US embargo against Cuba, saying that "restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people" and worsen problems of material need.
There will be no overnight changes in Cuba, but Benedict's gentle diplomacy will certainly build on the gradual progress evident since his predecessor's earlier successful visit.