From Cuba to Washington — Francis bridges a cultural, political chasm

Pope Francis officiates Mass in Havana

More than 300,000 worshipers attended a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the Plaza de La Revolución in Havana, Cuba on Sunday morning, Sept. 20, 2015.
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More than 300,000 worshipers attended a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the Plaza de La Revolución in Havana, Cuba on Sunday morning, Sept. 20, 2015.

From the cradle of Cuba’s Revolution to the bastion of capitalism, Pope Francis’ itinerary Tuesday would have caused political whiplash for less seasoned diplomats.

But during his short time at the helm of the Catholic Church, the 78-year-old Argentine has seemingly spent as much time brokering deals behind the scenes as breaking bread on the altar.

As the pontiff landed in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday after wrapping up a four-day visit to Cuba, the bi-national agenda was pregnant with meaning as the two nations begin to inch toward restored relations.

Residents here said they hoped Francis, who has been key to the rapprochement, might convince American politicians to dismantle the five-decade economic embargo on the island, known here as “the blockade.”

Angel Manuel Pantoja, a laborer and music composer who had woken up at 5 a.m. to hear the pope speak on Tuesday, said he hoped Francis could move mountains.

“Everyone should take the message that Cuba wants peace and friendship and we want them to lift the blockade,” he said. “What affects us most is the blockade, so hopefully he can help get it lifted.”

Francis will be addressing the U.S. Congress — which holds the key to making that happen — on Thursday.

Asked if the pontiff might protest the U.S. economic measure during his address, Vatican Spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the church had a “long history” of speaking out against the embargo.

However, “I’m not a prophet of what the pope might say in coming days,” he cautioned.

On Tuesday, however, Francis put global politics aside to focus on the more modest diplomacy of family relationships. In a speech at Santiago’s Cathedral, he hammered home the message that solid households are the bulwark of the church, ethics and even happiness.

“It’s at home that we learn to receive and be thankful — [where we learn] that life is a blessing,” he said. Lamenting the global breakdown in stable households, he said “it’s at home where we experience forgiveness and are invited, continually, to forgive and allow ourselves to be transformed.”

He also called on Cubans to protect the young and the old, calling grandparents “our living memory.”

Speaking to the wider audience following him on TV and radio, he asked all of the island’s pregnant women to place their hands on their belly as he telegraphed his blessing.

“The family is not a problem; it is, principally, an opportunity,” he said. “When you begin to see your family as a problem you’re stuck, you can’t go forward, because you’re too concentrated on yourself.”

In one of his biggest laugh lines of his trip, Francis conceded there was not such thing as a perfect son or spouse. “And don’t get mad at me, but I would even say there’s no such thing as the perfect mother-in-law,” he added.

The words of family unity were lost on some. The dissident organization Unión Patriótica de Cuba, UNPACU, said that Monday night through Tuesday morning more than 100 of their activists were rounded up and briefly detained in and around Santiago to keep them from approaching the pope.

“We’re used to this,” said Yriade Hernández, a national coordinator for the organization. “We’re threatened daily for simply thinking differently.”

Asked about the detentions on his flight to the U.S., the pope reportedly said he was unaware that dissidents had been rounded up and prevented from seeing him.

Francis began the day at what the Vatican called “Cuba’s spiritual heart” — the shrine of Our Lady of Charity, the island’s patron saint.

Unlike the massive Masses he lead in Havana and Holguín, the service at El Cobre was a smaller affair, and access to the site and town was tightly controlled.

Francis focused his sermon on the Virgin Mary, describing her as a proactive missionary, who took the gospel beyond the walls of the church. He also tried to re-cast the politically charged word “revolution” — deeply tied to the 1959 toppling of Dictator Fulgencio Batista.

“Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others,” Francis told the congregants, including Cuban leader Raúl Castro. “Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.”

As thousands of the faithful sat and stood outside, listening to his sermon on loudspeakers, Francis declared a year of jubilee to mark the 100th anniversary since La Virgen del Cobre became the country’s patron saint.

Although Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI also visited the site, this was the first time that a pontiff had celebrated Mass at the shrine. And locals in El Cobre said this papal visit seemed special.

Nelys García, 43, was wearing a faded t-shirt commemorating Benedict’s visit in 2012. She said there was more energy in the crowd than in previous papal visits. Asked about what struck her most about Francis, she didn’t’ hesitate: “Everything. He’s great.”

Pantoja, the singer, said that although the previous popes also addressed the crowds in Spanish, there was something powerful about hearing the words from a native speaker.

“It’s more than just the language,” he said. “It’s that Latin American feeling he gives us.”

Tucked into the southeastern corner of the country, Santiago is central to the island’s communist past.

On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl led an attack on the Moncada barracks and the nearby Palace of Justice. The ambush failed and the Castros ended up in jail, but the effort is considered the origin of the revolution that ultimately succeeded in 1959.

Jiovani Martinez, 46, was sitting in the shade of the one-time military installation, which is now the 26th of July school. He said the visit of Francis and his two predecessors to the small island is a testament to Cuba’s oversized reputation in the world.

He said the country punches above its weight, sending doctors and aid around the world despite the poverty at home.

“That’s why popes come here,” he said. “And that’s why popes will keep coming here.”

Francis often looked fatigued during this trip, careful pope-watchers said. But he also seemed bolstered amid the joyous, expressive Caribbean crowds.

“When you’re with family you feel at home,” he told the faithful shortly before heading toward the airport. “Thank you Cuba, for making me feel like I’m with family — for making me feel like I’m home.”

Miami Herald Cuba Correspondent Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report from Havana.

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