(Vatican 2015-04-23) When Pope Francis visits Cuba in September he’ll be the third Pope to travel to the Caribbean island nation where atheism was the official state policy until the early 1990s. Following John Paul II’s journey there in 1998 and Benedict XVI’s brief visit in 2012, Pope Francis will be seeking to strengthen the Catholic Church there, as well as building on the recent thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States.

Philippa Hitchen was on the papal plane with Pope Benedict during his trip to the capital, Havana, and to Santiago de Cuba on the island’s eastern coast. She recalls the highlights of that journey and the challenges facing the Church in Cuba today…

Three decades of religious repression following Cuba’s Communist revolution of 1959, took a heavy toll on the Catholic Church, with hundreds of schools closed and many priests and religious forced into exile in the United States. Tensions remained high until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Cuban Communist Party amended the country’s constitution, in 1992, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religious belief.

Yet Cuba never cut off diplomatic ties with the Holy See, facilitating a controversial visit to the Vatican by revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in 1996. Two years later, Pope John Paul made his historic five day pilgrimage to the island, famously urging “the world to open up to Cuba and Cuba to the world”.

When Pope Benedict travelled there nearly a decade and a half later, tensions had eased and an unexpectedly high number of Catholics turned out to attend Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square. The visit coincided with celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the discovery by local fishermen of a statue of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, housed in a shrine in the eastern city of Santiago.

Over the centuries many miracles have been attributed to the small wooden statue, seen as a powerful symbol of liberation during the struggle for independence from the Spanish and for the slaves, brought in to work the copper mines in the early 16th century. Descendants of those African slaves make up over 30 percent of the population yet they remain amongst the poorest inhabitants in the country, whose economy still suffers from half a century of American sanctions.

Ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit, the statue had been taken around the towns and villages of the island nation, drawing huge crowds of people and marking what local Church leaders described to me as a real ‘springtime of the faith’. Following talks with President Raul Castro and with his elderly brother Fidel, the government granted the Pope ‘s request that Good Friday could be celebrated as a national holiday (just as it had allowed Christmas to be reinstated following Pope John Paul’s request 14 years earlier).

Among the regional Church leaders in Havana during the Polish Pope’s landmark visit was the then Coadjutor Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio. Shortly afterwards, he wrote a booklet stressing the value of dialogue as the only way of overcoming the Cuban government’s isolation and its antagonism to the Catholic Church. Whilst problems remain and freedoms are still limited, Pope Francis’ visit will be reaffirming that patient dialogue, as he celebrates the recent rapprochement between Washington and Havana, in which Vatican diplomacy - and perhaps he himself - has played such a crucial part.