SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Pope Francis' visit to Cuba is a sign of his closeness to the nation's people at a time they "breathe the air of hope" that relations with the U.S. will improve, said Bishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez of Guantanamo-Baracoa.
"It's not easy to live at odds with your next door neighbor," Bishop Pino wrote in a Sept. 1 pastoral letter. "That's why it's very important what the pope is coming to do, as the universal pastor of the church, in the search for reconciliation and peace among all peoples of the earth.'
Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in three Cuban cities during a Sept. 19-22 visit to the Caribbean island before flying to Washington. He is credited with helping broker a historic thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba by sending letters to Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama last year and hosting delegates from the two countries at the Vatican.
Obama and Castro simultaneously announced a diplomatic rapprochement in December. Since then, the historic adversaries have re-opened embassies in Havana and Washington that had been shuttered for more than five decades and have announced they will launch a new round of diplomatic talks.
During his visit to Havana to reopen the U.S. Embassy Aug. 14, Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Pope Francis for "supporting the state of a new chapter in relations," while acknowledging that the two countries are far from realizing fully normalized relations -- including lifting the economic embargo against Cuba.
"Having normal (diplomatic) relations makes it easier for us to talk, and talk can deepen understanding even when we know full well we will not see eye to eye on everything," Kerry said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
Pope Francis is expected to meet with Castro, young people, church leaders, families and religious, in Havana, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba. It will be his first visit to the communist country as pope.
"Now we are going to receive Pope Francis as the 'missionary of mercy,'" Bishop Pino wrote, reiterating a term Cubans have used. Many hope the pope's visit will help heal Cubans strongly divided on ideological terms since a 1959 revolution that installed the communist government and led to tensions with the U.S.
"At times, it seems we live in a heartless world. Everywhere we find moral, spiritual, social, intellectual, mental and material miseries, and we find people that are desensitized to human suffering," Bishop Pino wrote. "Pope Francis, missionary of mercy, wants to invite us not to tire of practicing mercy."
Pope Francis will be the third pope to visit Cuba in the past 17 years, after Pope John Paul II's 1998 trip and Pope Benedict XVI's 2012 visit.