The Vatican announced Thursday that Pope Benedict XVI could make a visit next spring to Cuba and Mexico, marking the first word from the Vatican of a possible foreign trip for the pontiff next year despite his increasing frailty and 85 years of age.
The announcement also signals the Pope's intentions to travel to a region where about half of the world's Catholics live and where Pope John Paul II made historic visits during his pontificate.
Mexico is poised to take Brazil's place as the world's top Catholic nation, although the church is losing members in both countries. The church in Cuba, meanwhile, has taken on a prominent role recently in negotiating the release of jailed dissidents.
In recent days, the Vatican asked its papal envoys in Cuba and Mexico to inform religious and political authorities that Benedict is studying a "concrete project" to visit the two countries, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
A final decision with details is expected soon.
Benedict has limited his travels mostly to Europe, both to spare him from long trips and to focus his efforts on a continent where Christianity has fallen by the wayside. He did visit Brazil in 2007 and has said he hopes to return in 2013 for World Youth Day, the church's youth festival. And he has a trip to Benin coming up later this month, his second to Africa in his six-year-pontificate.
Lombardi said Latin America's Spanish-speaking countries have long wanted a visit of their own, particularly Mexican Catholics, who received four visits from John Paul — including the very first foreign visit by the new pontiff in 1979 that marked the first ever trip by a pope to Mexico.
John Paul also visited Cuba in a historic 1998 tour.
Though Cuba under Fidel Castro never severed ties with the Vatican, relations between the communist government and the church were strained for decades. Tensions eased in the early 1990s, however, when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and allowed believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further improved relations, and top Vatican cardinals have made frequent visits to the island since then: The Vatican's No. 2 visited in 2008 and the foreign minister just last year.
The Catholic Church has played an increasingly visible role on the island since then, most significantly in negotiating the freedom of 75 intellectuals and social commentators who were jailed during a 2003 crackdown on dissent.
The last of the detainees was released earlier this year under a deal brokered by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, with many of the dissidents sent into exile in Spain.
Lombardi said a visit by Benedict to Cuba would offer "great encouragement" to the island's faithful "as the church and its people live through an important time in their history." Next year Cuban Catholics will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba's patron saint.
Lombardi acknowledged, however, that the trip will not be easy on the pope. Benedict has appeared weaker in recent public appearances and recently began using a moving platform to spare him from having to walk down the long aisle of St. Peter's Basilica during Masses, leading to speculation that he might trim back his travel schedule further.
No other foreign trips have been announced by the Vatican for 2012.
Lombardi noted the long flight from Rome to Latin America in explaining that there would be just a few stops, not many, but that they would be "of great symbolic and pastoral value." Mexico City itself would likely be left off the itinerary because of its high altitude, he said, adding that an alternative is being studied.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.