Havana: Pope Francis begins a 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States on Saturday, embarking on his first trip to the onetime Cold War foes after helping to nudge forward their historic rapprochement.
He will be offering a show of solidarity with Cubans and making clear that Hispanics in the United States are the bedrock of the American church.
The visit boasts several firsts for history's first Latin American pope: Francis will become the first pope to address the US Congress and he will also proclaim the first saint on US soil by canonizing the controversial (and Hispanic) missionary, Junipero Serra.
Francis will also be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, becoming the third pontiff to visit Cuba in the past 17 years a remarkable record for any country, much less one with such a tiny Catholic community. And he will join them in grabbing the world stage at the United Nations to press his agenda on migration, the environment and religious persecution.
It's largely unknown territory for the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit, who has never visited either country and confessed that the United States was so foreign to him that he would spend the summer reading up on it. His popularity ratings are high in the US, but he also has gained detractors, particularly among conservatives over his critiques of the excesses of capitalism.
That has endeared him to Cuban President Raul Castro, who vowed earlier this year that if Francis kept it up, he would return to the Catholic Church.
But Francis has also been on record criticizing Cuba's socialist and atheist revolution as denying individuals their "transcendent dignity."