Pope Benedict heads to Mexico on Friday for a six-day trip that culminates in Cuba. That stop is controversial because Cuban dissidents fighting for democracy need the pope as an ally, but the church hasn't shown much willingness to take on the government.Benedict's visit comes 14 years after Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit the tiny island, where 60 percent of the population is Catholic. Dictator Fidel Castro ditched his battle fatigues and donned a suit to greet the pope at the airport.

Although many said the once-icy relations between Cuba's Communist Party and the Catholic Church thawed because of that visit, I would argue that not much changed. Cuba later eliminated references to atheism in its constitution and opened doors for greater numbers of religious believers to join the Communist Party, but is that really progress?

Although the church's numbers are strong in Cuba, it's clearly smarting. Before the revolution in 1959, more than 700 priests served on the island. Today, there are fewer than 400, and many aren't Cuban.

For the 84-year-old Benedict, health is a concern, and his visit will likely be viewed as a goodwill gesture to pump up the faithful more than anything else. Even in his younger days, he exuded none of the charisma that turned John Paul into something of a rock star. Still, Catholics will rally behind Benedict because of his position.

Benedict isn't scheduled to meet with the 85-year-old Castro, who stepped down from power in 2006 because of illness, though many expect it to happen. Publicly, it's Castro's brother, Raul, who will be handling the government's papal outreach. He was elected president in 2008.

The Vatican's stated impetus for Benedict's visit is the 400th anniversary of what the church says was an apparition of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Charity in Cuba. She's the patron saint of the island.


Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.