VATICAN CITY –– Pope Benedict’s trip to Mexico and Cuba March 23-28 will be a relatively brief one, consisting of a little more than two days in each country. Yet his visit is bound to highlight a wide range of prominent issues affecting an entire continent of crucial importance to the Catholic Church.

The pope arrives in Leon, in central Mexico, late afternoon local time March 23. His first full day’s schedule will be light, no doubt reflecting concerns for the health of the pope, who turns 85 April 16. Pope Benedict’s flight will have taken him across eight time zones, to a city 6,000 feet above sea level (compared to only 70 in Rome).

On the evening of March 24, the pope will meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has served as head of state since December 2006. His administration has been marked by a violent struggle between the military and the country’s drug cartels, a topic that will presumably arise in discussions between the two men.

The next day, Pope Benedict will address bishops from Mexico and across Latin America at a vespers service in Leon’s Cathedral of Our Most Holy Mother of Light. Here he is likely to touch on some of the issues that he raised on his only other Latin American trip, in 2007, when he spoke to the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, Brazil.

At that time, the pope urged church leaders to struggle against poverty and oppression but to shun direct involvement in partisan politics — an echo of his long-standing critique of the liberation theology movement, which grew from Latin American roots. Pope Benedict also warned then against the danger of syncretism, or the blending of religions, by those who adopt elements of indigenous traditions in their Catholic devotions –– a practice that the pope also denounced on his trip in November to the West African country of Benin.

The context and timing of this year’s speech will likely affect the content of Pope Benedict’s message to the Latin American bishops.

Mexico is historically a highly polarized country on religious questions. The country’s 1910 revolution was heavily anticlerical, and the 1917 constitution forbade religious education and even the public display of clerical garb. Such measures sparked the Cristero Rebellion in the late 1920s, when conflict between Catholic rebels and government forces left as many as 90,000 dead.

The country remains a mix of highly assertive secular and religious traditions, making it potentially fertile ground for the new evangelization that Pope Benedict has made a priority of his pontificate, and which will be the theme of a Vatican synod of bishops this October.

Cuba, where the pope goes March 26, is in a sense the mirror image of Mexico. It’s a country where the Catholic Church has enjoyed relatively tranquil dealings with the civil authorities; diplomatic relations with the Holy See have never been interrupted, even by the institution of a communist government in the 1960s, but religious practice has traditionally been as feeble as anywhere in Latin America.

Church officials estimate that only about 2.5 percent of Cuba’s population of 11 million can be considered practicing Catholics today, a fraction of the proportion prior to the revolution, though it represents a significant rise since the visit of Pope John Paul in 1998.

The church in Cuba continues to operate under severe restrictions, unable to build new churches or legally operate schools. However, the role of Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana and other Cuban bishops in successfully negotiating for the release of more than 100 political prisoners in 2010 reflects the government’s growing respect for church authority.

Pope Benedict will no doubt raise issues of religious and political freedom with President Raul Castro when they meet on March 27. The pope is also widely expected to meet with the president’s brother, former President Fidel Castro, although no such encounter yet appears on his official schedule.

The main reason for Pope Benedict’s trip is a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s patron saint, in the southeastern city of Santiago. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the miraculous appearance of the statue venerated at the basilica there.