HAVANA — Cuban faithful celebrating Christmas say they have plenty to cheer this year as they prepare for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI, the first visit by a pontiff to the Communist-run island since John Paul II's historic tour nearly 14 years ago.
The visit, expected in March, coincides with the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint and follows years of lobbying by Roman Catholic officials on the island.
The timing also appears to reward the larger role the church has assumed in Cuba in recent years. Havana Archbishop Jaime Ortega personally negotiated the release of political prisoners in 2010 and 2011, and church magazines have become a forum for articles offering advice to Cuban leaders on a process of free-market reforms begun by President Raul Castro.
Castro even cited Benedict's visit in announcing on Friday that Cuba would free 2,900 inmates as a humanitarian gesture, including some jailed for political crimes.
Churches across Cuba were holding Christmas services Sunday. Outside the Cathedral in Old Havana, retiree Rogelio Montes de Oca said he was counting down the days to Benedict's arrival, and praying that the pope would have the strength to go ahead with the visit amid reports the 84-year-old spiritual leader has appeared unusually tired in recent months.
"We have faith in God that we will be allowed to have this treat," said Montes de Oca, 72. "Not every country will have the chance to see him physically and receive his blessing."
Religious leaders and others who have spent time with Benedict recently say they found him weaker than they'd ever seen him. He has stopped meeting individually with visiting bishops, and has begun using a moving platform to spare him the long walk down St. Peter's Basilica.
Still, the pontiff has rallied in the past on grueling trips, and Cubans said they were hoping he will be able to see as much of the island as possible. When John Paul II visited in 1998 for a five-day trip, he was met by multitudes as he toured the eastern metropolis of Santiago and the central cities of Santa Clara and Camaguey.
"I am so happy Cuba is getting a second visit by a pope," said Gilberto Sigarti, a musician who was praying before a statue of the island's patron saint, the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre. "John Paul II's visit was a great joy."
The last papal visit to Cuba broke down walls that had existed between the church and Fidel Castro's government since the early days of the revolution, when priests were harassed and sometimes arrested, and the state formally declared itself to be atheistic. Authorities discouraged Christmas celebrations, closed religious schools in 1962 and barred Communist Party membership to people of religious belief.
A lot has changed since John Paul II's visit.
Instead of Fidel, Benedict will meet with younger brother Raul, 80, who has had a much less stormy relationship with the church and has even looked to church leaders for advice on some of the economic changes he is pushing. Benedict will also find an island much more at ease with religion than the one visited by his predecessor.
In today's Cuba, Catholicism is practiced openly — even by many Communist Party officials. Many Cuban Catholics mix the faith with aspects of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion. Evangelical churches are also on the rise on the island.
Even with Christianity's increased role, Christmas is a subdued event in Cuba. There are no sales in state-owned shops, and virtually no Christmas ornaments or decorated trees on display in public, in contrast to the ubiquitous signs celebrating the 53rd anniversary of the revolution, which takes place Jan. 1.
Cubans traditionally get together for a family meal on Christmas Eve, though a feast of pork leg, yucca and black beans on New Year's Eve is more widely and enthusiastically celebrated.
Benedict's visit is a pilgrimage to honor the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre, the patron of Cuba. A relic of the virgin has been traveling around the island this year. The pontiff has not given exact dates for his trip, but the Vatican has indicated it will be in March, shortly before Easter. The pope also will make a stop in Mexico on his Latin American swing.
Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven/