Pope in Mexico

March 23, 2012 2:25:21 PM PDT
Pope Benedict XVI is about to begin a historic trip to Mexico and Cuba. ABC7 will be with him along the way as our news team covers both parts of the trip.

On Friday, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church leaves Italy on a voyage that includes two very different countries.

ABC 7's Stacey Baca begins our coverage with a look at the challenges facing the pope in Mexico.

Adolfo Pinon is president of Casa Guanajuato, a Chicago club for people from the state the pope is visiting on his upcoming trip to Mexico.

"It's the only state he's going to so everybody's so happy about that," Pinon told ABC7. "Many people just digging in their pockets to try to see if they can get some money to go to see the pope."

While Pope John Paul II visited Mexico five times, Pope Benedict's first trip to the country with the second largest Roman Catholic population in the world is cause for celebration for Chicago's growing Mexican and Hispanic Catholic community.

"We pretty much are the Catholic face of Chicago today," said Friar Gilberto Cavazos-Gonzalez, who is Mexican American.

Friar Cavazos-Gonzalez hopes the pope will use his trip to Mexico to speak out against the recent rise in drug and gang violence, which is blamed for more than 47,000 deaths in the past five years.

"Part of me would like to think the pope will offer the challenge to the politicians and say, these are your people, you need to do something about it," said Friar Cavazos-Gonzalez.

This trip is not as packed as some of the previous pope's trips, but Pope Benedict plans to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and say an outdoor Mass for hundreds of thousands of people.

"He's not the athlete that John Paul II was, so the trip is going to be sort of at his own pace," said Professor Peter Casarella, DePaul University's Catholic Studies Department.

Some Chicagoans from Guanajuato are thinking of driving for more than a day and a half just to see the pope in their hometown.

After Pope Benedict finishes his trip in Mexico he heads east to Cuba where ABC7's Chuck Goudie will report from the second stop on this papal visit.

The island nation of Cuba is just 90 miles south of Florida, but for more than 50 years it has been largely inaccessible to Americans because of the U.S. embargo imposed by President John F. Kennedy that is still in place.

This week, a regime with a complicated history of its approach to religion claims to be ready to welcome Pope Benedict XVI with open arms.

"Because of the pope's visit, there's a tremendous amount of energy and excitement right now in Havana," said Associate Professor Christina Perez of Dominican University.

Perez just returned from a faculty trip she organized to Havana as part of the university's new Cuba study abroad program.

"There's a whole generations of U.S. folks who have really been cut off from the island," Perez.

After Fidel Castro led the revolution in Cuba in the 1950s, what followed was a very tense relationship with the U.S. including the failed American Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II visited the island. The trip was seen by many as a turning point in the relationship between Cuba and the Vatican. But despite some easing of travel restrictions, tensions between the U.S. and Cuba are still high.

"Families have been split just in half," said Javier Fernandez Jr., who fled Cuba with his family when he was five. Now he's hoping for a new regime in his homeland.

"The pope going down there, maybe things will start to change a little bit," Fernandez told ABC7.

Mary Ellen Thomas is traveling from Joliet to Cuba. She is delighted to see the pope on this side of the world.

"I want to be part of this," Thomas said. "This is the leader of your church and he's coming over to your hemisphere ... I think it will be awesome."

There is no scheduled meeting between the pope and Fidel Castro, who shunned his own Catholicism and was excommunicated decades ago. But Cuban bloggers speculate that the elder Castro may ask to meet the pope for an end-of-life reconciliation that could pave the way to further individual freedoms for Cubans.

Live coverage of Pope Benedict's trip to Mexico starts Friday afternoon with ABC7's Stacey Baca in Leon. Coverage in Cuba begins Sunday night at 10 p.m. with live reports from ABC7's Chuck Goudie in Havana.