A schedule of Pope Francis's eight-day trip to Cuba and the United States this fall shows he will meet with Raul Castro and celebrate Mass in three different cities on the island between Sept. 19 and 22.
Francis will make his first speech of the trip upon arriving in Havana from Rome on the evening of Sept. 19. He'll celebrate Sunday Mass in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution the following morning, then meet with Cuban President Raul Castro in the afternoon. Castro has said he plans to accompany Francis throughout the pope's stay.
The addition of a Cuba stop before his previously scheduled visit to the United States will make Francis's role in brokering a diplomatic thaw between the two foes a central theme of the trip. The Vatican hosted secret meetings between U.S. and Cuban officials that led to the announcement last December that the two countries would restore relations severed by Washington in 1961.
"The Holy Father wants to show us how important this moment is for him," Cuba's bishops said in a statement Tuesday. "Thanks in part to his mediation, our country has a new breath of hope as a result of the new possibilities created by the dialogue taking place between the United States and Cuba."
Francis, an Argentine, is a tremendously popular figure in Cuba, even though recent surveys indicate as many as half of the island's residents do not consider themselves religious. His trip follows a visit by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and the groundbreaking trip by Pope John Paul II in 1998 that transformed relations between the communist authorities and the church. All three men have called for the United States to lift Cold War-era trade sanctions against the island.
Castro and Francis spoke privately at the Vatican in early May. Afterward, the Jesuit-educated Castro, 84, told reporters that he was so impressed he was considering a return to the church, insisting, "I'm serious," when laughter broke out.
Francis is expected to urge Castro to allow the church to reopen Catholic schools in Cuba, the only country in Latin America that doesn't allow them.
The pope will fly Sept. 21 to Cuba's fourth-largest city, Holguin, where he will bless the city and celebrate public Mass. He'll then continue on to Cuba's most sacred shrine, the Our Lady of Charity at El Cobre, a basilica set against the backdrop of soaring mountains outside Santiago de Cuba.
The pope will meet with Cuban families in Santiago the following morning and celebrate Mass in the city's central plaza before departing for the United States on Sept. 22. Francis will almost certainly be the first person in a long time to make a direct flight from Santiago de Cuba to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.
Church authorities in Cuba say they expect Pope Francis to deviate somewhat from his schedule on the island, as he's known for making unscheduled stops to speak with people on the street.
As with previous papal visits to the island, Francis's trip is expected to be broadcast live on Cuban state television.
Schedule of Pope Francis's Cuba trip
10:15 a.m. Departure from Rome’s Fiumicino airport to Havana.
4:05 p.m. Arrival ceremony at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.
9 a.m. Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square.
4 p.m. Visit with Cuba’s President Raul Castro in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution.
5:15 p.m. Celebration of vespers with priests, religious and seminarians in Havana’s cathedral.
6:30 p.m. Greeting to young people at the Father Felix Varela cultural center in Havana.
8 a.m. Departure by air to Holguin, Cuba.
9:20 a.m. Arrival at Holguin’s Frank Pais International Airport.
10:30 a.m. Mass in Holguin’s Revolution Square.
3:45 p.m. Blessing of the city of Holguin from Cross Hill (Loma de la Cruz).
4:40 p.m. Departure by air for Santiago de Cuba.
5:30 p.m. Arrival at Santiago de Cuba’s Antonio Maceo International Airport.
7 p.m. Meeting with bishops at the seminary of St. Basil the Great in El Cobre.
7:45 p.m. Visit to Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
8 a.m. Mass in the Minor Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
11 a.m. Meeting with families in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption in Santiago de Cuba. Blessing of the city.
12:15 p.m. Farewell ceremony at Santiago de Cuba’s International Airport.
12:30 p.m. Departure for Washington.
4 p.m. Arrival at Joint Base Andrews.