Pope Benedict visits Latin America in the shadow of Pope John Paul

March 23, 2012

(A car drives past a poster of Pope Benedict XVI, which reads "welcome to Cuba" in Havana March 21, 2012. Pope Benedict will visit Cuba on March 26-28. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa )

A ghost will be following Pope Benedict at every step of his trip to Mexico and Cuba — that of his predecessor John Paul.

John Paul, who died in 2005, was a huge draw in many places. But, apart from his native Poland, nowhere was he a more towering figure than in Latin America, visiting every one of the region’s countries at least once. He drew oceanic, throbbing crowds, sloshed through swampy slums in Ecuador, challenged Maoist guerrillas in the Peruvian highlands and defended miners’ rights in Bolivia.

The more cerebral, sedate and shy Benedict, who enters the eighth year of his papacy in April, is making only his second trip to Latin America and his first to the Spanish-speaking part. He visited Brazil in 2007.

John Paul, underscoring the importance of overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Latin America for the Church’s future, chose Mexico as the first place to go just months after his election in 1978. He made one trip to Latin America nearly every year of his 27-year papacy, the last when he was 82 and in failing health. Of the 22 trips Benedict has made since his election in 2005, 15 of them have been in Europe.

Opinion polls show that a majority of people in Mexico and Cuba, reflecting the mood throughout Latin America, feel more affection and veneration for John Paul than for Benedict, who they believe understands them and their culture less.

The difference in pre-trip enthusiasm is so palpable that Bishop Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago of Leon, the Mexican city where Benedict will be based, felt impelled to admonish his flock to stop making comparisons with John Paul. “From the perspective of faith, all popes are equal and deserve our respect and our loyalty regardless of the charisma they have,” he told CNNMexico.

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