MIAMI — Cuba’s Catholic Church rejoiced this week with news that Pope Benedict XVI plans a visit next spring, a trip that would highlight the church’s rising status and unprecedented rapport with the communist government in recent years.

The Vatican announcement on Thursday that the visit would help mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the image of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, sparked “great joy and hope,” the Cuban Conference of Bishops said.

There was no immediate comment from the Cuban government on the pope’s visit to Cuba and Mexico, described by Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi as being in the advanced stages of planning but not final.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega boasted to reporters in Havana that while the visit to large and heavily Catholic Mexico was understandable, the Cuba leg of the trip showed the island was “a priority” and “very special” for the pope.

Ortega added that the island was “abuzz with the news,” although word of a possible visit by the pope had circulated for several months.

Benedict’s visit would emphasize the church’s growing role in Cuba, and perhaps signal a government opening to the outside world, said Marco Antonio Ramos, a retired Miami Baptist pastor who writes on Cuban history and religion.

The first visit by a pope to Cuba since 1998 would come as the church has extraordinarily good relations with a communist government that expelled scores of priests in the 1960s and was officially atheist until 1991.

Ortega played key roles in President Raul Castro’s decision to free more than 115 political prisoners over the past year, and to tone down the harassment of the activist Ladies in White by government-organized mobs in the spring of 2010.

The church also has been allowed to build a new seminary; launch a business school; run charity and educational programs for children, the elderly and the poor; and occasionally access the government’s media monopoly.

Huge crowds have turned out as a copy of the image of Our Lady of Charity, known as the Mambisa Virgin, has been carried from one end of the island to another in a pilgrimage in advance of the 400th anniversary celebrations next year.

The main image of the virgin, now kept at the El Cobre Basilica in eastern Cuba, was found floating in the Bay of Nipe by three fishermen in 1612, according to church history.