Photo by L'Osservatore Romano Vatican-Pool/Getty Images.
UPDATE: How's this for a special emissary? The White House announced Wednesday that it had asked Pope Benedict XVI to use his trip to Cuba this week to help facilitate the release of an American contractor who has been accused of spying by Cuban officials.
The Washington Post reports that the State Department reached out to the Vatican prior to his trip about Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence for suspicion of espionage related to his work importing satellites and communication equipment. Gross says he was only trying to help Cuban Jews access the Internet.
"We obviously are hopeful that the pope will continue to be strong on all of the human rights issues in Cuba, religious freedom, and it would be a very, very good thing if the Cuban government were to take this opportunity to release Alan Gross," said White House spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
Wednesday, March 28 at 11:13 a.m.: Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled for a rendezvous with Fidel Castro on Wednesday after a morning Mass that attracted tens of thousands to a shrine of the Cuban revolution in Havana.
The Associated Press reports that the former Cuban leader agreed on Tuesday to meet the pope during his trip to Mexico and Cuba this week, designed to promote Catholicism in the secular, communist country and push for reform. Benedict also met with current Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday.
Fidel Castro said he would happily meet with the pope, just as he did his predecessor, John Paul II, who also led an open-air mass during his historic visit to the then officially atheist country in 1988. The former pope’s visit had led to the declaration of Christmas as a national holiday in Cuba for the first time since the revolution 30 years prior.
"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be a sign of a positive step, as was the case of Christmas after John Paul's visit," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
In a deeper look at Cuba’s religious history, the BBC reminds us that the Church has only recently reasserted itself in the country—often through charity work in poor neighborhoods. The first new church was permitted in 2010, and 52 men are now studying in the seminary.
But after Benedict spoke to the Cuban crowds about "renewal and hope" at the Mass, the AP reports that Vice President Marino Murillo quickly responded: "In Cuba, there will not be political reform."
See more photos of the pope's visit here.