CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The March visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI has helped reawaken people's interest in the Catholic Church, according to two Cuban bishops visiting the United States.

But it also has stirred criticism of the church's efforts to work with the government more and may be connected to a fire of suspicious origin that gutted a travel agency that organizes charter flights from Florida to Cuba.

Remarks at an April 24 forum at Harvard University by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino about the church's role in Cuba riled some of the outspoken critics of the Castro government in both Havana and Florida.

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HAVANA - Pope Benedict XVI met former Cuban President Fidel Castro in the apostolic nunciature in Havana March 28 and answered the ailing former leader's questions, the Vatican spokesman said.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said he was watching the two men through a window, and afterward he spoke with the Pope about the conversation, which seemed very animated.

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HAVANA - Pope Benedict XVI spent more than 40 minutes meeting privately with Cuban President Raul Castro and asked the Cuban leader for further freedoms for the Catholic Church in Cuba and attention to certain "humanitarian" situations.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters late March 27 that while he could not give the press details about the humanitarian cases raised during the meeting, the Pope did give Castro specific names of people in detention or suffering for other reasons the government was in a position to help alleviate.

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LEON, Mexico - Pope Benedict XVI thanked Latin America's bishops for their hard work in a troubled region and urged them to continue the evangelization campaign he launched with them at their first meeting five years earlier.

The Pope spoke during a vespers service at Leon's cathedral March 25, the second and last full day of his visit to Mexico. The congregation included about 130 Mexican bishops, along with representatives of other national conferences in the Latin American bishops' council, CELAM.

Pope Benedict said the bishops deserved the "gratitude and admiration" due to "those who sow the Gospel amid thorns, some in the form of persecution, others in the form of social exclusion or contempt." He also recognized that they suffered from shortages of money and personnel and "limitations imposed on the freedom of the church in carrying out her mission."

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ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT TO MEXICO (CNS) -- En route to Latin America for his second papal visit to the region, Pope Benedict XVI called for patience with the Catholic Church's effort to promote freedom in communist Cuba, and criticized Catholics who participate in illegal drug trade or who ignore their moral responsibilities to seek social justice.

The pope, flying to Mexico March 23, followed his usual practice of taking a few preselected questions from reporters on the papal plane.

Responding to a question about human rights in Cuba, where he will arrive March 26, and where opposition leaders have been arrested after publicly appealing for a meeting with him, Pope Benedict said that the "church is always on the side of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion."

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VATICAN CITY - The Catholic Church's position on the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba is "no mystery," the Vatican spokesman said, and there's a good chance Pope Benedict XVI will publicly criticize the embargo when he visits Cuba.

At the same time, Pope Benedict also will call for greater freedoms -- particularly religious freedom -- and respect for other human rights during his stay in Cuba March 26-28.

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MEXICO CITY - A strong earthquake shook southern and central regions of Mexico March 20, but it had little impact on the region Pope Benedict XVI will visit.

"Everything is fine here," said Father Jorge Raul Villegas, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Leon, which will host Pope Benedict March 23-26.

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - Trinidad's only Catholic seminary educated future clergy members for six decades, sending graduates to ministries throughout the Caribbean.

But by 2010, the Regional Seminary of St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs had more staff than students and was losing nearly $100,000 a year. The Antilles Episcopal Conference closed it.

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and bishops and Catholics from the region when he visits Mexico and Cuba in late March.

He will also greet bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Cuba.

It will be his third visit to the Americas after the United States in 2008 and Brazil in 2007.

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VATICAN CITY - The Eucharist sustains those who are tired, worn out or lost in the world and transforms human sin and weakness into new life, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Speaking at his weekly general audience Jan. 11, the Pope focused on Jesus and the Last Supper, where he instituted the Eucharist, "the sacrament of his body and blood."

"Jesus' gift of himself anticipates his sacrifice on the cross and his glorious resurrection," the Pope said.

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and bishops and Catholics from the region when he visits Mexico and Cuba March 23-28.

He will also deliver a message to the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Cuba.

Vatican Radio released the pope's itinerary as detailed by the Mexican and Cuban bishops' conferences Jan. 2.

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HAVANA - Cuban President Raul Castro announced his country will free 2,900 political prisoners in the spring, a move he partially attributed to Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit.

In a speech to the National Assembly, Castro said the Council of State had taken into account the papal visit as well as requests from prisoners' family members and top Catholic officials. He also mentioned the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, patroness of Cuba.

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MEXICO CITY - A spokesman for the Mexican bishops' conference confirmed details of Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to Mexico originally published by the newspaper Reforma, which reported the papal visit would occur March 23-26.

The spokesman, Father Manuel Corral, stressed that details of the visit "are not official," although he said the Pope would only visit the state of Guanajuato and its environs in west-central Mexico. Father Corral said specific details of the visit would likely be made public before the end of the year.

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WASHINGTON - Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Cuba in the spring will have multiple layers of meaning for the church and for Cuban society, said a U.S. archbishop who pays close attention to Cuba.

The pope will go there as a symbol of peace and hope, as a pilgrim participating in "a springtime of faith," and as part of the church's efforts at creating the climate for a "soft landing" for the country to come out from under 50 years of communist rule, said Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski in a Dec. 14 interview with Catholic News Service.

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HAVANA - The Cuban bishops announced that 2012 would be a Marian jubilee year and that Pope Benedict XVI would come to Cuba as a "pilgrim of La Caridad," the popular name for the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the country's patroness.

In a Dec. 8 pastoral letter, they declared a jubilee year from Jan. 7, 2012, through Jan. 6, 2013, and said Cubans need the joy of faith, the strength of Christian love and the light of hope that can come from "a reunion with our Christian roots" and with the "enthusiastic reception of the teachings of Jesus Christ."

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