.- Pope Benedict XVI set off this morning from Rome on his apostolic journey to Mexico and Cuba with predictions that his visit will provide a well-timed morale boost.
“Great is the attention with which the entire international community looks towards your new mission, … and intense are the expectations and hope of the population that is about to meet you,” Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said in his March 23 traditional farewell telegram.
“I am convinced that your pending visit will transmit deep feelings of closeness and communion with the peoples of these countries and the entire Latin American continent,” he said.
President Napolitano believes the visit will be a “high morale booster for facing, in a spirit of renewed solidarity and unity, the important civil and social challenges facing these nations.”
Pope Benedict departed from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport at 9:50 a.m. He was accompanied to his flight by the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti.
The 84-year-old Pope used a cane for the first time in public to make the 100-yard journey from his helicopter to his chartered Alitalia flight. He then climbed the stairs of the plane unaided, only stopping to wave to well-wishers.
In total, 107 people are flying on the papal plane, including five Vatican cardinals. As is traditional, the Pope will field questions from journalists during an in-flight press conference. The plane will arrive in Mexico’s Leon Airport after a 14-hour flight, arriving at the Leon airport at 4:30 p.m. local time.
This is Pope Benedict’s 23rd foreign visit since his election in 2005, although it is his first papal trip to the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. He previously visited South America during a pilgrimage to Brazil in 2007. He also hopes to return there for World Youth Day in Rio in 2013.
When he announced his plans to visit Mexico and Cuba in December 2011, the Pope said that he believed now was “a precious time to evangelize” Latin America and the Caribbean.