During Pope Francis’ first full day in Cuba on Sunday, he dipped into the crowd to shake hands before Mass, met with both Castro brothers and closed the day in an emotional meeting with thousands of cheering young people.
The day began early for Cubans who were following the pope’s activities. Even before dawn broke on Cuba’s iconic Plaza de La Revolución, more than 300,000 of the faithful had gathered to hear the pontiff give his first homily during a highly anticipated tour that will take him across the island and on to the United States later this week.
In the plaza, which is presided over by towering images of revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos and a 350-foot tower to independence hero José Martí, his message was one of reconciliation and dialogue. He talked of the need to serve and the evils of being too prideful.
Although his words to the faithful were largely pastoral, he discussed the ongoing peace process in Colombia. As with the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, Francis played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing the Colombian government and that country’s largest guerrilla group to the table to try to end their 50-year civil conflict.
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Those talks, which are approaching the three-year mark, are taking place in Havana.
“We do not have the right to allow ourselves another failure on this road toward peace and reconciliation,” said Francis, noting the need for respect for institutions and international and national law “so there may be a lasting peace.”
As a festive but respectful crowd was filing out of the plaza, the pope was on his way to his first meeting of the day with a Castro — Fidel.
Francis, 78, met with the former Cuban leader, who is 89, for 30 to 40 minutes Sunday morning at his home in the presence of his wife, sons and grandchildren, according to Monsignor Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
He described the pope’s conversation as “very familiar, very informal.”
The pope presented Castro with several religious-themed books and Castro gave the pontiff the book “Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology.”
But Francis’ big meeting of the day came on a patio of the Palace of the Revolution when he and current Cuban leader Raúl Castro sat down for a face-to-face conversation that stretched on for nearly an hour.
Afterward, Raúl unveiled two gifts for the pontiff: an altar-sized crucifix and a painting of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
After the two men met at the Vatican in May, Castro said he was so impressed with the pope that he might even consider a return to the Church.
The gifts might seem incongruous coming from a state that was officially atheist from 1962 to 1992, but since the 1990s, and especially after Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit, tolerance for religious beliefs of all stripes have grown.
A seminary is once again open in Cuba and the numbers of those in religious orders are slowly increasing. Francis celebrated evening vespers with priests, seminarians and nuns at the ornate Cathedral of Havana.
His route from the palace to the cathedral once again took him through the streets of Havana where he was greeted by wildly cheering crowds.
Francis’ visit was regarded as another step in the church’s quest to gain strength and space in Cuban civil society.
During the Mass, the pontiff asked Cubans to take care of each other and answer the call to serve. Tens of thousands of Cubans from Cuba’s eastern provinces were bussed in to attend the Mass and tens of thousands from Havana also flocked to the plaza better known for being the site of massive state rallies and marathon speeches by Fidel Castro when he was still in his prime.
“Serving others chiefly means caring for their vulnerability,” Francis said.
The pontiff invited Cubans “to care for and serve, in a special way, the vulnerability of your brothers and sisters.”
Service to others isn’t about being ideological, he said, “for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” But Francis also warned against only helping those in one’s inner circle or family. “That kind of service always leaves [people] out,” he said, “generating a dynamic of exclusion.”
The pope finished his homily with the words that may become a catch phrase of his visit to Cuba: “Whoever does not live to serve, his life isn’t worth living.”
That was the message that many took away from the 1 1/2 hour Mass.
“The pope was a messenger of peace and tranquility,” said Jose Cobo, who left his Havana home at 5 a.m.to come to the Mass that started four hours later. “There are things we Cubans have done badly and we need to be kind to each other.”
Vivian Mannerud, a Cuba travel services provider who helped organize the Archdiocese of Miami’s pilgrimage to Cuba, called the words “powerful.”
“When I heard those words, I just said, ‘wow.’ There’s something about this pope. The Holy Spirit just came down among us. Everyone should listen to this pope’s kindness and learn how to be more Christian,” she said.
But the pope also offered words of encouragement for Cubans who are suffering through a difficult economy, a drought, and divided families as more people, especially young people, seek opportunities abroad.
“God’s holy and faithful people that walk in Cuba have a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things,” he said. “They are a people who go forward, who sing, who worship. They are a people who have wounds like every other people yet they know how to stand with open arms, marching forward in hope because [the Cuban] people have a vocation of grandeur.”
He asked Cubans to care for that vocation and not to forget “the importance of individuals.”
During his prepared text for vespers, the pope also struck a similar theme, saying “unity is often confused with uniformity; with actions, feelings and words that are identical. This is not unity, it is conformity. It kills the life of the Spirit… Unity is threatened whenever we try to turn others into our own image and likeness.”
But the pope broke from his planned remarks to rail against poverty and the excesses of wealth in his longest address of the day. “Poverty and mercy, there is where God is,” the pope said.
In a Communist country, the pope’s call for individualism and service “caught my attention,” said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a retired University of Havana religion professor. “It could be interpreted as a political message.”
But overall, he found the words of the pope to be “cautious.”
“He didn’t get into political things except when he commented about Colombia,” he said “He did try to give Cubans more hope but in a pastoral sense.”
He summed up the pope’s first day in Cuba “as an important step in an effort to construct a new church for the new historic moment that Cuba is living.”
That includes a new relationship with the United States. Havana Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino thanked Francis for his role in helping Cuba and the United States restore diplomatic ties and said he hoped that the benefits might extend “beyond the high political levels, and reach the people, especially the people in our Cuba and those who live in the United States.”
In general those in the massive crowd at the Plaza said they enjoyed the pope’s message.
“It was just beautiful. I truly felt his words in my heart,” said Xiomara Camejo Leiva, 68, who works in elder care. “This is my first time in the plaza for a Mass. It is just perfect and I hope that this pope will return very soon.”
Cheering crowds waved small Cuban and Vatican flags during the Mass, and Francis stopped his pope mobile on several occasions — greeting nuns and priests, and embracing a delegation of Cubans in wheelchairs.
As the band played Cuban-infused rhythms, and the choir did as much swaying as singing, the dense crowds huddled under umbrellas to screen themselves as the sun rose in the sky and fanned themselves as temperatures approached 80 degrees.
There was also a heavy dose of Latin American pride present in the plaza.
Some in the crowd waved Mexican, Argentine, and Brazilian flags and even an American flag. As the white popemobile entered the plaza, the announcer said, “Pope Francisco can feel he’s in Latin America. He’s at home.”
Even some of the hymns were punctuated with a tropical beat, and Raul Castro and Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner sat side-by-side near the altar.
But the events at the plaza weren’t without incident. As the pope arrived, three protesters tossed leaflets into the air and one spoke briefly to the pope. The pontiff blessed the man and was driven away. The protesters were quickly detained by security.
The incident followed the short-term detentions Saturday of several Cuban dissidents, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, who were invited to the Nunciatura where Francis spent his first night in Cuba.
Dissidents also reported dozens of other house arrests as the state tried to keep dissidents away from the papal Mass.
The pope finished his day on a music note at a combination concert and encounter with 5,000 youths on the grounds of the Father Felix Varela Cultural Center.
Young people are considered among Cuba’s most vulnerable because their solution to lack of opportunity is often to leave the country.
The pope once again set aside his script and responded to a speech by youth leader Leonardo Fernandez who said young people are united in “hope of a future of profound change in Cuba where our country becomes home for all of our children regardless of how they think.”
The pontiff told the youths that the ability to dream is important.
“The young person who is not able to dream is closed in on himself. Dream of them. Desire them. Open yourself up to great things,” he said. “We Argentines say don’t shrink. Open yourself up and dream that the world with you will be different. Dream that if you give the best of yourself, you’ll help the world to be different. Do not forget that. Dream.”
On Monday, the pope will head to Holguín and Santiago, before traveling to the United States on Tuesday for a four-day trip that will take him to Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia.