[Austen Ivereigh in Havana] Pope Francis spent his first day in Cuba seeking to build a new self-understanding true to the island’s Christian and national traditions, asking the Cuban people not to give up what made them unique while inviting them to embrace their calling as place of reconciliation in the region.
Welcoming him to Cuba, President Raúl Castro referred to the Pope’s speech to popular movements in Bolivia in July in which he spoke of the right to land, jobs and housing.
“It was to conquer such rights, among others, that the Cuban Revolution was undertaken”, he told the Pope, claiming later in the speech that Cubans “exercise religious freedom as a right consecrated in our Constitution.”
Although there is freedom of worship in Cuba, the Church operates under similar constraints to other Cubans, without access to the media and requiring state approval for the smallest matter.
In his speech, Pope Francis clearly disagreed with that last assessment, speaking of the Church’s need for “freedom, the means and the space needed to bring the proclamation of the Kingdom to the existential peripheries of society.”
He also made clear that he had come for all Cubans, extending a greeting to those abroad as well as those on the island. Reconciling Cubans with each other is one of the aims of this visit.
In a message rich in allusions to Cuba’s past, he reconnected the nineteenth-century struggle for independence from Spain with its Christian heritage, and quoted José Martí – the revered thinker whom the Revolution has claimed as its precursor – against “the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties”.
He also reminded Cubans that it was veterans of the independence wars who petitioned for the Virgin of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre to be made “patron” of Cuba. The growing devotion to the Virgin in Cuba – he noted in his speech – showed how she rested in the “soul of the Cuban people”, a phrase he had used back in 1998 in essays reflecting on John Paul II’s visit to the island.
In that book, Dialogues between Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro, he had spoken of how neither “neoliberalism” nor capitalism reflected “the soul of the Cuban people”.
Speaking to the soul of Cuba
The messages of his first day were designed to speak to and affirm that “soul”. Having invited Cubans at the airport to embrace their vocation as a symbol of the culture of encounter – the “key” between east and west, north and south – at the Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square on Sunday morning, he said Cubans should protect and embrace their distinctive calling, “to care for these gifts which God has given you” and not to neglect them “for plans which can be seductive, but are unconcerned about the face of the person beside you.”
The true understanding of service as care for the concrete person was the main theme of the homily, which he delivered in suffocating heat from an altar on a temporary stage suspended between icons of power and service, temporal and spiritual, the political and the personal.
To the left were the words Misionero de la Misericordia (‘Missionary of Mercy’), the theme of this visit, above pictures of Mother Teresa kissing a leper and Pope Francis embracing a man. To the right was the famous image of a defiant Che Guevara and the revolutionary sloga, Hasta La Victoria Siempre (‘On towards victory’).
“Serving others chiefly means caring for their vulnerability,” he told a respectful and mostly silent crowd of 200,000 protecting themselves from the sun under umbrellas – a figure considerably higher than in previous papal visits.
Echoing language he once used with Jesuit students attracted by political ideologies, Pope Francis urged Cubans not to be seduced by political rhetoric that uses language of solidarity but is essentially partisan.
“There is a way of going about serving which is interested only in helping ‘my people, ‘our people’,” he warned. “This service always leaves ‘your people’ outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion.”
The Christian vocation, on the other hand, was to care for concrete others, in the flesh, and without discrimination or judgement.
Francis also continued his bid to affirm Cuba’s vocation in the world.
Noting that God’s holy faithful people in Cuba have “a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things”, he said that despite its wounds the island has “a vocation of grandeur” and urged Cuba to care for that vocation. He said the “true humanity” of a people and a nation was based on “how they seek to serve their vulnerable brothers and sisters”.
Despite the heat, Pope Francis seemed relaxed and in his element, speaking slowly and carefully, and clearly enjoying his rapport with Cuban people.
In his Angelus address at the end of Mass, he called for peace in Colombia. “We do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure,” he said of efforts end a civil war that began in 1964 and has killed more than 200,000 people.
“May the bloodshed by thousands of innocent people during long decades of armed conflict… sustain all the efforts being made, including those on this beautiful island, to achieve definitive reconciliation,” the Pope prayed.
At the end of Mass, when he asked the crowd to pray him, there was clapping and chants of “Amigo, amigo, Cuba está contigo” – “Cuba is with you, Friend’ – and waving of Cuban flags.
The Mass was undisturbed but for a small group of opposition activists attempting to petition Francis as he went past in the open popemobile.
Meetings with Fidel and Raúl Castro
After Mass he went to the residence of Fidel Castro, now 89 and extremely frail. It was a private, informal meeting, and no photographs were released, although Fidel’s son later made some available. Fidel was also accompanied by his wife and grandchildren.
Father Lombardi told journalists that the meeting had lasted 30-40 minutes and was similar to that which took place in 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI met Fidel, with the difference that while on that occasion the Cuban leader asked questions of the Pope this time it was more of a “conversation”.
They exchanged books. The Cuban leader gave Francis a copy of the 1985 interview with the liberationist Dominican priest Frei Betto, Fidel y la Religión, while Pope Francis gave Fidel several books, including ones by Italian priest Alessandro Pronzato — whose first (1965) book was called The Frontiers of Mercy — and his two encyclical letters, Lumen Fidei and Laudato Si’.
The Pope also gave him a book and a CD of homilies by Fr Amando Llorente SJ, a Spanish Jesuit who taught Fidel Castro as a child in the 1940s, and who remained in contact after Castro left school. Fr Llorente was forced to leave Cuba in 1961, at the time of the persecution of the Church by the very Revolution led by Fidel. Was the Pope’s gift about helping the frail leader to come to terms with his past?
Shortly after 4 p.m., Pope Francis met Raúl Castro in the Palace of the Revolution, along with their delegations.
Fr Lombardi could offer no information about the content of their discussions, but said they were familiar with each other following an hour-long Vatican meeting in May. Afterwards, President Castro presented the Pope with an enormous crucifix made by the Cuban artist “Cacho”, made of oars to symbolize the drama of migrants drowning at sea. Pope Francis in turn made a gift of a mosaic of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
In Havana cathedral
Pope Francis then made his way to the cathedral, stopping at the Jesuit church known as “La Reina” to greet parishioners. The Loyola Center at the church is one of five cultural centers offering courses in ethics, languages and humanities that shows the new spaces being occupied by the Church here.
At the cathedral he addressed religious and clergy in a powerful improvised reflection on poverty and mercy. In messages directed primarily at consecrated men and women who had taken a vow of poverty, he warned against worldliness and the temptation of wealth.
“When, for example, a religious congregation starts to store up money, more and more, God in His goodness sends them a terrible accountant who brings them to bankruptcy,” he told them, adding that these “terrible accountants” are a divine blessing because “He makes them poor, He makes them free.”
He told the Religious that when they served the the littlest, the most abandoned, the sickest, the ones without love whom people ignore, “you are serving Jesus in the greatest way”. He spoke of the “tenderness of God” as being like a disabled child who tries to kiss you and dribbles on your face, and praised the Religious who “burn away their lives” caring for “discarded material”, adding that those who were thrown away included children in the womb “sent back before they are born” after disabilities show up on scans.
To priests he gave a familiar message about the need for forgiveness in the confessional, asking them to imagine that they had “a treasure in their hands, the mercy of God”, adding a quote from St Ambrose, that “where mercy is, there is the Spirit of Jesus; where there is rigidity, are just His ministers.”
Before speaking, he was addressed by a student who spoke of the social and economic obstacles facing the young in Cuba.
Leonardo Manuel Fernández Otaño, whose father is a member of the Communist Party and whose mother is a Catholic, spoke of the shared hope of young in “a future of profound changes” and “for Cuba to be a home for all, however they think and wherever they are”.
Picking up in this theme, Pope Francis urged them to have open minds and hearts, to dialogue with those who think differently, and to build what he called “social friendship” across the divides of religion and culture. He also invited them to see that hope was more than optimism; “hope knows how to suffer in order to carry forward a project.”
Hope, he said, was linked to work.
In Cuba, young people are educated but have few job opportunities. Although there is technically no unemployment, jobs are extremely low-paid and often meaningless. Pope Francis however spoke of youth unemployment in Europe.
“A country that does not create employment opportunities for its young people, leaves them with little but suicide or addiction, or to seek out destructive armies to create wars,” he said, warning of “retired young people” who at the age of 22 fall into despair and flee life.
He urged Cuban young to dream and hope, and to build a culture of encounter. “For if there is one thing greater than us, it is the greatness of our people, it is the greatness of our homeland; that is the beauty, the sweet hope of the homeland which we need to reach.”
There were reports that two woman dissidents who were arrested trying to reach Pope Francis on Saturday had been called by the nuncio to suggest a meeting with Francis at the cathedral. According to the dissidents, Marta Beatriz Roque and Miriam Leiva, they were were prevented a second time from reaching the cathedral, after being told they had no “accreditation”. Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, confirmed that “calls were made” but wouldn’t be drawn on why a meeting never took place.
This morning, the Pope left for Holguín to celebrate Mass before going on to Santiago de Cuba.