Pope Francis is heading to Cuba for a three-day visit aimed at solidifying the re-establishment of relations between the United States and the Communist-run island, and shoring up a fragile local Catholic Church, religious experts said.
"This is more than a courtesy visit," said Enrique Pumar, an associate professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a native of Cuba. "This is also a way to gather and galvanize support for this rapprochement."
The first pope from Latin America is expected to land late Saturday afternoon in Havana, where Cuban authorities will greet him. The next morning he celebrates an outdoor Mass in the Plaza de la Revolución, where a giant image of fellow Argentine Ernesto "Che" Guevara looms nearby, along with a monument to Cuban founding father Jose Marti, another hero of Fidel Castro's revolution.
"You couldn't dream this up in terms of a set," said the Rev. Claudio M. Burgaleta, an associate professor of religion at Fordham University and also a native of Cuba. "An Argentine pope looking at a sculpture of an Argentine revolutionary with a 19th century Cuban patriot as a backdrop for Mass."
Francis later will meet with President Raúl Castro, before departing for Cuba's interior. He will visit the city of Holguin and then El Cobre, an old copper mining town outside Santiago that is home to the minor basilica of the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint.
From Santiago, the pontiff heads to the United States on Tuesday for a historic five-day visit to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.
Francis' visit will be the third papal trip to Cuba since 1992, the year the government run by Fidel Castro -- himself educated by Jesuits in high school -- ceased to be officially atheist. Pope John Paul II in 1998 called on Cuba to "open to the world, and the world to open to Cuba." Pope Benedict XVI journeyed to the island in 2012.
Ever since Francis announced he would attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, a Catholic conference on family values -- and later added on New York and Washington -- he was encouraged by some people to visit Latin America as well, with Mexico mentioned most prominently, said Burgaleta, who like Francis is a Jesuit.
But the pope felt Mexico deserved its own separate trip, and he could not imagine a quick visit across the southern U.S. border as some suggested to show solidarity with immigrants, since it would not allow him to go the famous Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, Burgaleta said.
Cuba, though, "with its history of perilous emigration does the same kind of work," said Candida Moss, a religion professor at Notre Dame University. "By visiting Cuba first, Francis is retracing the dangerous footsteps of countless illegal immigrants and showcasing his interest in poorer, less powerful nations."
The island's proximity to the United States makes the trip logical as well, along with the role Francis and the Vatican played in the rapprochement, experts said.
Smoothing the way
The Vatican hosted meetings for U.S. and Cuban negotiators, and the pope's backing also provided some political cover for President Barack Obama against critics of the thaw. Those critics, especially in Miami's vociferously anti-Castro community, are vehemently against the resumption of diplomatic relations, saying Cuba remains a failed totalitarian state that will be rewarded by the new agreement.
Supporters of the rapprochement contend that more than a half-century of trying to isolate Cuba has failed, and that a new approach of engagement is needed to help promote democracy and free markets. The pope's visit may also help Raúl Castro, who himself faces opposition to the deal from hard-liners in Cuba, Pumar said.
While the rapprochement is a major reason for the trip, it isn't the only one, experts said. Francis hopes to bolster a Catholic Church that for years was officially banned by the Communist government and still cannot broadcast on radio or television, or run schools. Pumar, who served as an altar boy there in the late 1960s, recalls being hectored and humiliated on his way to Mass and in the classroom.
"The Cuban church is at a critical period itself," Burgaleta said, adding that it is a struggling outpost of Catholicism after years of official repression. "It's a place that is desperately in need of reconciliation and dialogue, and that's another theme he hearkens to often."
Just 300 Catholic priests are stationed on the island, half of them foreigners, along with 600 nuns -- far too few to minister to a population of 12 million, he said. Up to half the population identify themselves as Catholics, though few actively practice the faith.
Still, the situation has improved, church experts said. More churches are open, and people can freely practice their faith -- even while supporting the Cuban Revolution. "You can be a revolutionary and a Catholic," Pumar said.
Raúl Castro to attend
Raúl Castro has said he will attend all three of the pope's Masses in Cuba, and is so impressed with Francis he may start attending Mass regularly.
The head of the church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, archbishop of Havana, turns 79 in October and is well past the age of 75 when bishops are required to submit their resignations to the Vatican, which can wait years to replace them. Francis is likely looking for a replacement, analysts said.
One name mentioned is Emilio Aranguren Echeverria, bishop of Holguin, where Francis will visit.
The pope also may be attracted to Cuba for reasons more specific to Latin Americans, even if he doesn't condone everything about the Castro revolution, Burgaleta said. "Cuba holds a mythical place in the psyche of Latin America -- it's the country that stood up to the great empire," he said. "Though the economy is a shambles and there is no freedom, for a lot of Latin American progressives, Cuba still has its mythical allure."
Francis isn't likely to openly condemn Cuba's one-party system, but rather try to nudge Castro toward democratic reforms, experts said. A book he wrote about John Paul II's 1998 visit a few months after Francis -- then known as the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- was named archbishop of Buenos Aires criticized Cuba's authoritarian socialism but also called for an end to the John F. Kennedy-era U.S. trade embargo.
"We can expect him to offer at least soft criticism of the way that Catholics have been marginalized there," Moss said. "He has been derided for his 'communist' economic views and the visit to Cuba will give him the opportunity to demonstrate how Catholic social teaching and secular communism diverge from one another."
The pope may use some unusual ways to communicate his message: A one-time teacher of literature, he knows Latin American literature well, Burgaleta said.
"It would not surprise me at all if Bergoglio doesn't use the poetry of Marti to speak to the Cuban government," he said.