HAVANA — Pope Benedict XVI sat down Wednesday with Fidel Castro and his wife, Dalia, for a 30-minute private talk before ending his three-day trip to Cuba and returning to Rome.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, described the meeting between the Holy Father and the father of Cuba's communist revolution as “animated” and “colloquial.” He said that the pope told Castro how much he enjoyed visiting the island, and that Castro responded that he’d been following the pope’s trip on television.
The two men also spoke about world’s problems, the environment, and cultural and religious difficulties.
“Fidel asked questions,” Lombardi said. “He’s not responsible for the leadership of the government. His life is more focused on reflection and study of writing.”
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Castro asked the pope why the Mass has changed since he was a child and what specifically a pope does. They discussed economic problems and the pope talked about the challenges of religion being marginalized in society.
Castro brought up their similar ages.
Benedict responded: “I’m old, but I’m still able to do my duties.”
Castro introduced the pope to two of his sons, Alex and Antonio, before saying goodbye. Antonio Castro is a doctor for the national baseball team. Alex Castro is a freelance photographer who took photos of his father's meeting with the pope.
In video of the meeting, Castro struggled to walk. When he was not sitting, he braced himself by holding one of his sons’ arm. He needed the help of several to get in his car after the meeting.
William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert and the dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, said the meeting served multiple purposes for both men, allowing the pope to recognize Castro's role in improving state-church relations after his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited the island in 1998 while letting Castro endorse his brother Raul's collaboration with the church in the future.
“It sends a message to ordinary Cubans that Fidel is comfortable and supports the new relationship between the church and state,” LeoGrande said.
After the meeting the pope went to Havana's Jose Marti Airport, where President Raul Castro met him for a farewell ceremony that was moved inside because of heavy rain. Raul Castro told the pope that he will always remember the pope's “affectionate feelings for the Cuban people,” and he condemned those who criticize Cuba for political purposes.
Pope Benedict said that discrepancies and difficulties will be resolved with “patient and sincere dialogue.”
“I will continue praying fervently that you will go forward and that Cuba will be the home of all and for all Cubans, where justice and freedom co-exist in a climate of serene fraternity,” he said, minutes before boarding his plane for the return to Rome.
The pope's day had begun with the most public event of his visit to Cuba, an open-air Mass celebrated before hundreds of thousands of Cuban faithful in central Havana, where the pope said clearly that “Cuba and the world need change.”
The crowd, which Vatican officials estimated at 300,000, remained quiet in order to hear the 84-year-old pope’s softly spoken words.
It was the last public act of the pope's three-day pilgrimage across this communist island. He said Mass in Santiago, prayed at the sanctuary in El Cobre that houses Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, and met with Fidel's brother Raul, who's now the country's president.
Benedict's Mass was filled with symbolic criticism of Cuba's authoritarian regime, but he also offered cautious praise.
He picked a Gospel reading about “three young men persecuted by the Babylonian king” who preferred to face death rather than betray their consciences. He applauded steps the country has taken to provide the Roman Catholic Church more space for its work and the Cuban people more opportunities to practice religion freely.
“This must continue forward,” he said. “And I wish to encourage the country’s government authorities to strengthen what has already been achieved and advance along this path of genuine service to the true good of Cuban society as a whole.”
Cubans from across the country flocked to Havana’s Revolution Square to see the pointiff, who was visiting Cuba to honor the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the 15-inch-tall Our Lady of Charity statue adrift in the waters of the Bay of Nipe.
One group took an overnight boat from the Isle of Youth, Cuba’s second largest island, gathering at its port at 10 p.m. Tuesday to make the three-hour ride across the Gulf of Batabano. The boat left at 1 a.m., reaching the Cuban mainland at 4 a.m., after which the 140 pilgrims still faced a three-hour bus ride to Havana.
Eliaser Matos, 50, said he didn’t sleep, but sang and danced throughout the night. The group continued to sing as it marched into the plaza under a large banner: “Isla de la Juventud, Presente” or “Island of Youth, Present.”
“Charity will unite us. Give your brother a hand,” they sang in Spanish.
Security was tight throughout the city. Entry into the plaza was limited as roads around the square were closed by 2 a.m.
The crowds weren't as large or as boisterous as the estimated 400,000 who'd gathered last week in Mexico, Lombardi said.
"It was a cordial reception, although less expansive or enthusiastic than the one he received in Mexico," Lombardi said. "This doesn't mean there was less sincerity and perhaps underlines the fact that this is an event that's even more rare for the Cuban people than it is for Mexicans.”
The event appeared to finish without incident, unlike the papal Mass in Santiago on Monday, where a man was arrested after rushing toward the pope screaming, “Down with communism.” But members of the Cuban dissident group known as the Ladies in White reported that several members had been arrested on their way to the Havana Mass.
Two members of the group, Becky Felicia, 50, and her daughter, Jessica Casternau, 22, were arrested outside their home at 7:30 a.m., according to Jose Casternau, Felicia’s husband and Jessica’s father.
Jose Casternau said his wife and daughter were driven in away in police car No. 964.
“They didn’t want them at the Mass,” he said. “I’m very nervous. This is the second time my wife has been taken this week.”
Those who attended the Mass echoed the words of the Catholic leadership that the visit wasn't about politics.
Raul Diaz, 61, who said he'd also attended a Mass said by Pope John Paul II during his 1998 visit, said the people were concentrating on following the pope’s message of faith. He said the enthusiasm he felt Wednesday was similar to the energy that people felt in 1998.
“This pope doesn’t travel as much as John Paul,” Diaz said. “So it’s very special for him to come to Cuba.”
Outside Havana, the expectations were that the pope's visit would have tangible results, said the Rev. Alberto Reyes, a 44-year-old Catholic priest in the central Cuba town of Guaimaro, which is 250 miles from Havana.
“There were a lot of expectations for the pope’s visit. I think there was a religious expectation. There was also an expectation of what can change in Cuba because of this visit,” Reyes said.
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story from Guaimaro, Cuba.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.