Choir sings at Plaza de la Revolución in Holguín, Cuba
The man whose unassuming personality has transformed the papacy arrived Monday in a corner of Cuba that had never seen a pope and urged the faithful — and, perhaps, their political leaders — to embrace change.
Pope Francis stuck to religion as he celebrated Mass at Holguín’s Plaza de la Revolución. But Monday was the Feast of St. Matthew, whose story is one of spiritual conversion. And so, like many things the pontiff has said while in Cuba, Francis’ pastoral message took on a broader meaning.
He spoke of Matthew, a despised and traitorous tax collector for the Romans who abandoned that life to follow Jesus. Francis urged Cubans to “slowly overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change.”
“Do you believe it possible that a traitor can become a friend?” the pope said, looking out at thousands of people congregated in the plaza.
Sitting in the front row: Cuban leader Raúl Castro.
After the Mass, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters the pope’s homily was chiefly aimed at individual hearts and minds: “Each one of us has to start to change.”
But, Lombardi conceded, “His speeches always have many dimensions.”
Those were the dimensions that seemed to interest many of the people from Holguín, for whom Francis is inseparable from normalized diplomatic U.S.-Cuba relations and a larger role for the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba.
“He spoke of the reconciliation between the church and the government,” asserted Ernesto Parra, 43, who now lives in Miami but traveled home to Holguín for the pope’s visit. “I liked that.”
The government, though, still arrested at least five opposition activists who tried to attend the Mass, according to Unión Patriótica de Cuba (Patriotic Cuban Union), or UNPACU.
“Almost always the regime does whatever it takes to make it impossible for us to get close to the pope,” said Yriade Hernández, the group’s national coordinator. “All we want to talk with him about is the lack of liberty and the political prisoners on the island.”
Hernández added the group has records of 21 jailed activists. “In every municipality where we have strong presence, our people are being monitored,” he said, predicting more activists would be picked up in Santiago, where the pope arrived late Monday to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
An UNPACU member from Havana said an additional five group members remained in jail after being detained Sunday — some of them trying to approach the pope during his Mass there. The spokesman said the detainees include three people from Playas, two from Havana and one from Pinar del Río.
Reporters again pressed Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, about the detained Havana dissidents, who said Francis had telephoned asking to see them. Again, Lombardi said a meeting with dissidents was not on the pope’s agenda.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Cuba “should do a better job of protecting the human rights of their citizens, including those who may even have some criticism of the Cuban government to offer.”
South Florida’s two Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, separately bashed the Cuban government’s treatment of dissidents.
In his homily, Francis lamented that religious freedom remains elusive in Cuba, where Catholics can worship but can’t have their own schools or radio stations.
“I know the struggles of the church in Cuba,” Francis said. He praised Casa Misiones, the estimated 2,600 “mission houses” that, given a shortage of churches and priests on the island, provide a place for people to pray and practice their faith. “They are small signs of God’s presence in our neighborhoods.”
Throngs of people, buoyed by faith and hand fans, endured sweltering heat to sit or stand through Francis’ Mass. Many didn’t make it past Francis’ Popemobile tour of the square shortly after his arrival. They waved to the pontiff from behind wooden barriers but left after realizing they could hardly hear Francis — or bear the punishing sun.
Cuba is Latin America’s least Catholic country, and Holguín is no different. The city’s two largest churches remained closed most of Sunday, on the eve of the pope’s visit. Of the people who attended Monday’s papal Mass, only those near the front seemed to know the hymns and prayers.
“Bow your heads,” a man behind a microphone instructed the crowd to receive the pope’s final blessing.
Still, Holguineros declared themselves proud to host a pope for the first time. They said their city, parts of it in severe disrepair and recently plagued by dengue, cholera and drought, could use a touch of holiness.
Francis’ visit coincided with three days of rain, including a Monday afternoon thunderstorm.
When the pope made his way to Loma de la Cruz, the Hill of the Cross, to formally bless Holguín, the skies parted.
At the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre later Monday, Francis held a private meeting with bishops then sat before the saint in prayer. A children’s choir sang to the pontiff before he left to retire for the night. On Tuesday, Francis will preside over a Mass at the shrine in Cobre, meet with families and bless the city of Santiago before leaving about 12:15 p.m. for Washington, D.C. to begin his American tour.
Mazzei reported from Holguin and Chang from Miami. Miami Herald South American correspondent Jim Wyss reported from Santiago. McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark also contributed to this report from Washington.