Fidel Castro gave the Pope a book entitled “Fidel and Religion”, based on conversations between the Cuban leader and a Brazilian priest, in which he speaks about his views on Catholicism and his education in a Jesuit school.
Pope Francis prays inside the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, in El Cobre, Cuba, Monday, September 21, 2015.
In what is sure to become an emblematic moment of Francis’s tour of Cuba and the United States – the Cold War enemies whose reconciliation he helped to bring about – the pope chatted with the 89-year-old Castro and his family for about 30 or 40 minutes, said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
Believers and non-believers alike streamed into the square before dawn for Francis’ 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.
Before meeting with Raúl Castro at the Palace of the Revolution – Havana’s seat of government – Francis thanked him for a warm welcome and pardons of 3,522 prisoners convicted of minor crimes.
Pope Francis also met with Fidel Castro’s brother Raul, who, perhaps jokingly, said he likes the Pope so much he is thinking of returning to his Catholic roots.
“Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people”, the pope said, his words echoing across a square long associated with the older Castro’s burning oratory during the early years of his Marxist revolution.
Cuba bans opposition groups and routinely arrests dissidents who try to protest – typically releasing them after a few hours, at least in recent years. They also exchanged books on religion as gifts.
Arriving on Saturday, Francis exhorted Cuba and the United States to deepen their detente, and encouraged Cuba to grant more freedom to the Roman Catholic Church, which has re-emerged as a powerful force after suffering decades of repression.
Security services were seen arresting at least three people who were shouting and attempting to distribute flyers at the edge of Revolution Square as the Mass got under way. “And to come back, there is a hope in the air that was not here before”, said O’Malley.
He particularly praised the “mission houses” in remote areas that he said “given the shortage of churches and priests, provide for many people a place for prayer, for listening to the word of God, for catechesis and community life”. He and other GOP members don’t want a religious leader to take political stands on issues affecting Americans, but local people we spoke with disagree.