Though many European settlers and explorers who followed in Columbus’s footsteps proselytized their Catholic beliefs, it wasn’t until 1537 that Pope Paul III issued a charter affirming that the indigenous populations in Latin America were equal to Europeans, and thus allowed to become Christians.
In the 1800s, numerous countries, including Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia, signed contracts with the Catholic Church, or modeled their constitution on Catholic values, declaring themselves Catholic states.
First papal visit to Latin America
Despite the Catholic Church’s lengthy presence in Latin America, the first papal visit to the region didn’t take place until 1968, when Pope Paul VI visited Bogota, Colombia. A TIME Magazine article dated Aug. 30, 1968, noted that upon arrival, the pope “fell to his knees at the foot of the airplane ramp and kissed the concrete,” imitating Christopher Columbus’s first act when he arrived in the New World.
When Paul VI visited, the region was caught up in conflicts and dictatorships, ranging from a civil war in Guatemala to a military rule in Brazil. However, the main purpose of the pope’s visit was to prevent further splintering of the Latin American Catholic church, according to TIME.
Benedict XVI in Latin America
The pope’s visit was marred, however, by two controversial comments. First, on May 9, Benedict agreed with Mexican bishops’ desire to excommunicate pro-choice Catholic politicians, reports TIME. But perhaps more damaging was a statement he made during a May 13 speech to Latin American bishops in Brazil, when he implied that indigenous people had longed for the Catholic enlightenment brought by the colonists, reports Reuters.
“The proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture,” he said, without noting forced conversions and violence brought about by colonizing Catholics, reports TIME.
As a result, numerous indigenous groups protested across the Americas and demanded an apology from the pope, which he eventually gave.
Papal visits to Mexico
Mexico has the second-largest Catholic population in the world, behind Brazil, with 96 million Catholics residing in the country. Although the country lovingly welcomed John Paul II, it has traditionally had one of the strongest separations of church and state in the region, dating back to the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, when anticlerical policies were created.
Papal visits to Cuba
Pope Benedict XVI’s trip marks only the second papal visit to Cuba. After the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro dubbed the island an atheist state, exiling priests and sending many to reeducation camps. But the situation began to shift after the Soviet Union fell, and Cuba lost a vital financial lifeline.
As a result – and in an effort to reach out for new sources of foreign investment– Mr. Castro made a landmark gesture toward the Vatican, allowing Pope John Paul II to visit the island in 1998. (To learn more about the Catholic church in Cuba, see this Monitor story.)
Just over half of Cubans identify as Catholic, which places it among the lowest Catholic populations in the region, according the the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.