Pope Francis has urged thousands of Cubans who filled Havana’s evocative Revolution Plaza to care for one another, and not judge each other, as he opened his visit to the country yesterday amid great hopes that the key role he played in bringing about detente with the US will result in changes on the island.
Believers and non-believers alike streamed into the square before dawn for Mass, and they erupted in cheers when history’s first Latin American pope made his first drive through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile. Pope Francis didn’t disappoint, winding his way slowly through the masses and stopping to kiss children held up to him.
While most Cubans are nominally Catholic, fewer than 10 per cent practice their faith.“This is very important for us,” said Mauren Gomez, 40, who travelled some 155 miles from Villa Clara to Havana by bus, spending her time reciting the Rosary.
In his homily, Francis urged Cubans to care for one another out of a sense of service, not ideology, and to refrain from judging one another by “looking to one side or the other to see what our neighbour is doing or not doing.”
“Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it,” Francis told the crowd. “That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.”
Maria Regla González, a 57-year-old teacher, said she appreciated Francis’ message of reconciliation and unity for all Cubans, and said Francis was particularly able to convey it given he is Latin American and speaks their language.
“This is a crucial moment, and the pope’s support for us is very important,” she said. “He made a call for unity, and that’s what we want.”
The morning Mass kicked off a busy series of events for Francis, including a formal meeting with President Raul Castro and a likely encounter with his 89-year-old brother, Fidel. Francis will finish with an evening vespers service in the San Cristobal cathedral and meet with Cuban young people.
In an important aside, Francis ended the Mass with an appeal for Colombia’s government and rebels, who have been holding peace talks in Havana for over two years, to put an end to South America’s longest-running armed conflict.
“Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation,” he said.
Later, a Vatican spokesman said Francis met Fidel Castro and exchanged gifts of books during their half-hour meeting at the former Cuban leader’s home.
Federico Lombardi said the pontiff presented Castro with a volume written by a Jesuit who taught him at the Catholic school he attended as a child.
Castro gave the pope a collection of his own conversations about religion with Brazilian cleric Frei Betto.