HAVANA – HAVANA (AP) — The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was bound for eastern Cuba on Wednesday to consult with local Roman Catholic priests and pay a visit to the island's patron saint.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George was traveling to Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, where he planned to celebrate Mass at the municipal cathedral, according to Santiago Archbishop Dionisio Garcia.
George will visit the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Garcia said by phone, and then meet with priests in the area. He has no plans to come to Havana, roughly 600 miles to the west.
"It's a short trip," Garcia said, "a fraternal exchange between two brother churches."
Cuban church officials plan a year of celebration in 2012 to mark the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of Charity, and are hopeful Pope Benedict XVI can visit the island that year.
In 1612, three fisherman from the mining town of Cobre found a wooden statue floating off the coast and bearing the label "I am the Virgen de la Caridad," and she became patron saint of the country. The Vatican has not commented on the pope's plans.
On Sunday, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's foreign minister, concluded a five day visit in Havana in which he met with President Raul Castro.
George has been Chicago's archbishop since 1997, leading 2.3 million Catholics.
The Church has become a major political voice of late, though only with the consent of Cuba's government. Last month, Cuba Cardinal Jaime Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a small group of wives and mothers of political prisoners known as the Ladies in White.
The cardinal and another church leader subsequently met with Castro for hours. Church officials then announced the government would allow transfers for prisoners held far from their families and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it.
A prisoner of conscience, Ariel Sigler, a paraplegic in Matanzas province, was subsequently released. And about a dozen others have been transferred to facilities closer to home.