Pope Benedict XVI plans to travel to Cuba and Mexico before Easter next year, saying he hopes his visit will strengthen the faith and encourage Catholics there to seek justice and hope.
Benedict confirmed his travel plans Monday during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica honoring Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The late Pope John Paul II made historic trips to both Cuba and Mexico. He became the first pope to visit Mexico when he landed in 1979 on his first foreign trip and he made a groundbreaking tour of communist Cuba in 1998.
Benedict has visited Latin America once before _ Brazil in 2007 _ but the 84-year-old has focused his travel mostly in Europe, to both spare him from long trips and to focus his efforts on a continent where Christianity has fallen by the wayside.
His decision to return to Latin America shows the Vatican's concern about cementing the faith in a region that claims about half of the world's Catholics, but where evangelical Pentecostal movements are making major inroads.
In his homily, Benedict said it was his responsibility as pope to help confirm the faith in such an important Catholic stronghold. He said he hoped the region would continue to create new missionaries who would help build a society "rooted in the development of the common good, the triumph of love and the spread of justice."
"With these wishes, and supported by the help of divine providence, I intend to make an apostolic trip before Easter to Mexico and Cuba," he said as applause erupted in St. Peter's Basilica.
He said it was a "precious time to evangelize with a solid faith, a lively hope and ardent charity."
Mexico is second only to Brazil as the world's top Catholic nation. The church in Cuba, meanwhile, has taken on a prominent role recently in negotiating the release of dozens of jailed dissidents.
Although 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 to Cuba further improved relations, and top Vatican cardinals have made frequent visits to the island since then.
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.
In Havana, Catholics were joyful at the news.
"His visit to our country is a cause for pride and satisfaction, and it is an important thing for the revolution," said 47-year-old Ramon Parte, who was paying homage Monday to an image of the Virgin of Charity that was on a nationwide tour.
Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed.