VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican spokesman praised Cuba's decision to accept Pope Benedict XVI's request to make Good Friday a national holiday this year.

"It is certainly a very positive sign," Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said April 1.

Good Friday, the commemoration of Jesus' passion and death, falls on April 6 this year.

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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 - Preaching at Mass in Havana's Revolution Square, location of the headquarters of Cuba's Communist Party, Pope Benedict XVI called for full religious freedom and greater respect for human rights on the island.

"In Cuba steps have been taken to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing the faith openly and publicly," the Pope said during his homily March 28. "Nonetheless, this must continue forward."

With President Raul Castro seated near the altar platform, the Pope said, "I wish to encourage the country's government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole."

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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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SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba - Celebrating an outdoor Mass on his first day in Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the struggles of the country's Catholics after half a century of communism and described human freedom as a necessity for both salvation and social justice.

The pope spoke March 26 in Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, in Cuba's second-largest city. He had arrived in the country a few hours earlier, after spending three days in Mexico.

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SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba - Pope Benedict XVI began his three days in Cuba with a call for greater freedom and human rights, including increased liberty for the Catholic Church to proclaim the Gospel and serve the Cuban people.

After flying from Mexico, the Pope was greeted at the airport in Santiago de Cuba March 26 by President Raul Castro and a formal salute of 21 cannon blasts.

Crowds began arriving along the pope's motorcade route at around 10 a.m. By 11:30 many of the streets in Santiago de Cuba were human rivers.

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SILAO, Mexico - Pope Benedict XVI bade Mexico a warm "adios," emphasizing he meant, "Remain with God," concluding a trip marked by outpourings of faith and affection from people in the world's second-most populous Catholic country.

"I leave full of unforgettable experiences, not the least of which are the innumerable courtesies and signs of affection that I've received," Pope Benedict said March 26 in his closing remarks before departing for Cuba.

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SILAO, Mexico - Visiting Latin America for the second time in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI offered a message of hope for social progress rooted in a revival of Catholic faith.

The overriding message of the Pope's public statements during his three days in Mexico, March 23-26, was that this troubled country, and the region in general, cannot solve their problems -- which include poverty, inequality, corruption and violence -- by following the prescriptions of secular ideologies.

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HAVANA - Cuba's foreign minister said his government is looking forward to welcoming Pope Benedict XVI and exchanging points of view with him, even after the Pope used his in-flight news conference to criticize Marxist ideology.

Bruno Rodriguez, the foreign minister of Cuba's communist government, was asked about the pope's remarks March 23 during the opening of the Havana press center for the papal visit.

"We are looking forward to an exchange of ideas" during the pope's visit March 26-28, he said.

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SILAO, Mexico - Celebrating Mass in the Catholic heartland of Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI told a nation and a continent suffering from poverty, corruption and violence, to trust in God and the intercession of Mary to help them bring about a "more just and fraternal society."

"When addressing the deeper dimension of personal and community life, human strategies will not suffice to save us," the Pope said in his homily during the outdoor Mass at Guanajuato Bicentennial Park March 25, the second full day of his second papal visit to Latin America. "We must have recourse to the one who alone can give life in its fullness, because he is the essence of life and its author."

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SILAO, Mexico - Arriving in Mexico on his second papal visit to Latin America March 23, Pope Benedict XVI said he came as a "pilgrim of faith, of hope, and of love," promoting the cause of religious freedom, social progress and the Catholic Church's charitable works.

Bells tolled and the assembled crowd cheered as Pope Benedict XVI appeared through the door of his Alitalia plane at Guanajuato Internal Airport in central Mexico. He was greeted by Mexican President Felipe Calderon and other dignitaries, including Archbishop Jose Martin Rabago of Leon and Archbishop Carlos Aguilar Retes of Tlalnepantla, president of the Mexican bishops' conference and the Latin American bishops' council, CELAM.

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LEON, Mexico - Thousands of Catholics formed a human wall lining parts of the highway and boulevards leading into and through this industrial city of shoe factories and tanneries in anticipation of Pope Benedict's arrival March 23 -- his first visit to Mexico since being elected in 2005.

Many dressed in white T-shirts and waved Vatican flags as they waited in the hot sun. Others chanted support slogans and screamed as motorists honked horns while passing. Some even began lining up in the predawn hours.

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SAN FRANCISCO DEL RINCON, Mexico - The milliners of Sombreros Salazar in this deeply Catholic town 140 miles northeast of Guadalajara have the habit of making oversized, charro hats for the pope.

The family matriarch, Maria de la Luz Yepez Torres, already has made the oversized hats for Pope Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II.

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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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LEON, Mexico - Pope Benedict XVI will address the pressing issues of poverty and insecurity during his visit to Mexico, along with orienting Catholics toward a missionary mentality, the president of the Mexican bishops' conference said on the eve of the pontiff's arrival.

"Without doubt, he will express preoccupation with the situations the country is experiencing," Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Tlalnepantla told Catholic News Service March 22.

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