SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba, March 26 (UPI) -- Pope Benedict XVI made no direct reference to Cuba's political system Monday in his first speech in the communist island country.
Before arriving in Cuba, the spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics had said traditional Marxism no longer works and Cubans should seek "new models."
"It is evident that Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality," Benedict said on his flight Friday from the Vatican to Mexico, where he spent the weekend before flying to Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city.
In Santiago de Cuba, Benedict said he came as "a pilgrim of charity" who carries in his heart "the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all Cubans, wherever they may be, their sufferings and their joys, their concerns and their noblest desires, those of the young and the elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
The pope noted many in the world are experiencing "particular economic difficulty" and called it part of a "profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families."
"We can no longer continue in the same cultural and moral direction which has caused the painful situation that many suffer," he said. "On the other hand, real progress calls for an ethics which focuses on the human person and takes account of the most profound human needs, especially man's spiritual and religious dimension."
Before arriving in Cuba, Benedict, who will also visit Havana, said he was ready to help the country find new ways of moving forward.
"New models must be found with patience and in a constructive way," he said.
Told of Benedict's comments, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said, "We will listen with all respect to His Holiness."
But he added, "Our people have deep convictions developed over our country's long history."
Benedict's trip is officially timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of Our Lady of Charity, or the Virgin of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, admired even by Cuban communists as a symbol of nationalist unity, The Washington Post said.
Benedict said he intended to visit the shrine "to ask her to guide the future of this beloved nation in the ways of justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation."
Benedict's trip is the first by a Roman Catholic pontiff since Pope John Paul II paid a historic visit to the island in January 1998.
That visit was controversial, with many in the ruling Communist Party objecting to his presence and broadcasts of his homilies and open-air masses successfully negotiated only at the last minute, USA Today reported.
Benedict called John Paul's visit to Cuba "a gentle breath of fresh air which gave new strength to the church in Cuba."
He said "one of the important fruits" of John Paul's trip was "the inauguration of a new phase in the relationship in Cuba between church and state, in a new spirit of cooperation and trust, even if many areas remain in which greater progress can and ought to be made, especially as regards the indispensable public contribution that religion is called to make in the life of society."
The church's profile has risen sharply since John Paul's visit, amid a religious tolerance not seen since the 1959 communist revolution and church leaders campaigning for political and economic freedoms, The New York Times reported.
At the same time, the church has struggled to attract worshipers -- less than 5 percent of the population attends Catholic churches, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Sixty percent of the Cuban population is Catholic, the U.S. State Department says.
The church faces criticism from dissidents it has grown too cozy with Cuba's tight circle of decision makers, The New York Times said.
The pope wishes "to revive a somewhat dormant faith, a faith perhaps somewhat faded, but one that is present in the hearts of the Cuban people," Cardinal Jaime Ortega said on state-run television in advance of Benedict's visit.
In 2010, Ortega negotiated the release of more than 100 political prisoners, many arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissidents. In December 2011, Cuban President Raul Castro freed 2,900 prisoners, citing the upcoming papal visit.
Seventy members of dissident group Las Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White -- protesting on behalf of political prisoners -- were arrested March 18 as they held a silent march through Havana.
"We only want a minute to communicate with" the pope, group leader Berta Soler was quoted by USA Today as saying, adding that many of the women were beaten before their release.
"We are marginalized, oppressed, and the church must hear and protect us," she said.
Castro greeted Benedict on his arrival, shaking his hand but not kissing his ring, The New York Times reported. The newspaper said the pope would also meet Castro's brother Fidel, who was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII in 1962.
Also in Cuba during Benedict's visit is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who arrived during the weekend to begin radiation therapy to treat the return of his cancer.
Lombardi said he personally informed the pope and his entourage Sunday morning about Chavez's visit. He said they had not received a request from Chavez for an audience.
The reaction to Benedict's visit appeared mixed among Cubans, The New York Times said.
"It's giving me goose bumps to think that the pontiff is coming here, to this city, to pray to our patroness," Mario Raul Palomo said. "What a blessing."
But Tamara Borges was sanguine.
"He'll come, he'll do his mass and he'll leave," she said. "I was here during the last pope's visit, and nothing changed. We're still in the same situation, with the same problems, and the embargo continues. The fact he's coming doesn't give me much hope that anything will change."