MEXICO CITY (AP) — For his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America, Pope Benedict XVI has chosen the region's most Roman Catholic country -- and its least.
In Catholic Mexico, towns throw parties for their patron saints, pilgrims prostrate themselves at shrines and many people still cross themselves every time they pass a church. In Cuba, abortions are legal and many adults have been divorced more often than they've been to Mass.
Cuba's churches are mostly empty and until the 1990s, believers were barred from the Communist Party.
What the two countries on the pope's weeklong itinerary share is a disaffection with a German pontiff known as a staid academic who is uncomfortable with Latin America's mix of Catholicism and popular mysticism, and its legions of unsanctioned saints.
For many Catholics, the papal visit to Mexico starting March 23 is long overdue, given that it has more Catholics than any other Spanish-speaking country.
In Cuba, the trip is seen as the Vatican's recognition of the church's work nudging the Communist government to release political prisoners and institute economic reforms. That effort has given the church an outsized political role, despite the fact that practicing Catholics make up only 10 percent of the population.
In both nations, there is hope that Pope Benedict's visit will close an alarming distance between the Vatican and a region shaped by Catholicism.
"In seven years as pontiff he has never visited Hispanic America," said Bernardo Barranco, a specialist in contemporary Catholicism at the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico. "The pope has shown a clear preference for Europe."
The biggest challenge for Benedict is that he is not John Paul II.
Devotion still runs high for the pope's predecessor, who honored Mexico by making it his first trip outside the Vatican and coming back four more times. He is known as "Mexico's pope." Recently a glass case containing his blood (one of the relics of his beatification) traveled throughout Mexico for 91 days and is said to have been seen by 27 million people.
John Paul had an age advantage; he was 58 when he first came here, while Benedict is turning 85 next month.
Still, the difference in atmosphere is inescapable. The papal souvenirs and promotions that preceded John Paul have yet to materialize for Benedict's trip. The hilltop "Christ the King" monument in Guanajuato, where the pope arrives Friday, displays only a few Benedict key chains.
"We believed in John Paul II, but Benedict, no. We know he exists, but we don't feel him," said Noemi Huerta at a celebration for St. Jude, the apostle, that overwhelms a church in central Mexico City every month. "That's because he has rejected us a little. He keeps us at arm's length."
Nor is he a fan of pseudo saints like Santa Muerte, or "Holy Death," condemned by the church but adored by drug traffickers and other criminals. The skeletal saint's statuettes have since become more popular, now sold in Mexican street markets and found in meth labs. "La Flaquita," or skinny saint, is thought to protect outlaws and help in matters of love, money, and illness.
Benedict has urged the purging of such practices in favor of a more "pure" kind of Catholicism, a notion he is also pushing in Europe, the region he has visited most and where the church has declared a crisis in faith.
The pope did come to this hemisphere twice before — to Brazil in 2007 and the U.S. in 2008. He visited Africa in 2009.
R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the Vatican has poorly handled the erosion of Catholicism in Latin America.
"He really should have been visiting Latin America more than any place on Earth," Chesnut said.
Though the continent still boasts half the world's Catholics, their numbers are falling. The percentage of believers in Brazil and Mexico are at their lowest levels since the second half of the 19th century, dropping to 68 percent of Brazil's population and 84 percent of Mexico's, and some estimate the percentage is much lower.
In Cuba, where he arrives March 26, Benedict's message will be "Christian love, reconciliation and unity among Cubans," according to Monsignor Jose Felix Perez, assistant secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba.
But the pope is also expected to push for permission to open religious schools and build or refurbish churches and seminaries, and while he is unlikely to win any immediate concessions he will be visiting a society where religious practice is steadily evolving.
John Paul II's 1998 visit followed reforms that eliminated references to atheism from the constitution, accepted believers as Communist Party members, and declared Christmas a holiday. Benedict will also seek more air time for the church on state-controlled TV and radio. In one possible hint of change to come, authorities Tuesday allowed Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, to go on TV and tell the nation about Benedict's visit.
While congregations may not be growing, the church's influence is. Ortega participated in 2010 in the negotiations for the release of political prisoners. Authorities have allowed religious processions, and President Raul Castro attended the inauguration of a new seminary in 2010.
"The church is inserting itself in the future of Cuba and preparing for a future without the Castros," said Enrique Lopez Oliva, associate professor of History of Religions University of Havana. "This visit will reinforce that as well."
But Benedict cannot insulate himself entirely from politics. Days before his arrival, 13 dissidents occupied a Havana church and demanded the pope mediate with the Cuban government to resolve their grievances. They were evicted peacefully with the cardinal's approval and the Holy See's endorsement, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters in Rome.
Benedict is also expected to denounce the U.S. embargo on Cuba as John Paul II did on his visit, when he said it hurts the neediest.
The Vatican reiterated Friday that Benedict feels "able to take on serious duties even given his age and his strength," but confirmed that doctors had advised him against going to places above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in altitude. That rules out a visit to Mexico City, the capital.
The pope will land in Guanajuato just days before Mexico's presidential campaign officially kicks off.
Here, many see the visit as a nod to the National Action Party, which has very close ties to the Catholic Church and is up against voter discontent after 12 years of rule. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is poised to take back the presidency it held for 71 years, with candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota urging voters to go to Mass first, vote second.
The faithful are watching to see how Benedict will handle the worst church sex scandal in Mexican history, and new revelations of abuse allegedly committed by the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the powerful Legion of Christ religious order.
Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger reopened an investigation in 2004 into a history of allegations that Macial had sexually abused boys for decades. John Paul II had been a close friend of Maciel's and had referred to him as model clergy.
And it was Benedict who retired Maciel to a life of prayer and penance in 2006. Maciel died in 2008 at 87.
In 2010, a woman came forward to say she had two children with Maciel and adopted a third, and that he abused two of the three. That year the Vatican issued the results of its investigation, and began to reform the order, which acknowledged wrongdoing.
On some of his trips Benedict has met with victims of sexual abuse by priests, but such meetings are never announced in advance.
Bishop Victor Rene Rodriguez, general secretary of the Mexican bishops' conference, said Benedict's handling of the scandal proves he is the right pope for the right time "because of the depth of his teachings and his courage to face the problems of the church."
Still, the comparisons to John Paul are sure to continue, and the passage of time will be clear from the photo ops — John Paul with Fidel Castro, the bearded revolutionary, and 14 years later two pragmatic octogenarians named Pope Benedict XVI and Raul Castro.
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Mexico City and Andrea Rodriguez reported in Havana. AP writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City, Katherine Corcoran in Guanajuato, Mexico, and Victor Simpson and Daniella Petroff in Rome contributed to this report.