Standing in the symbolic heart of political Cuba, Pope Francis on Sunday began his first full day in the island nation with an outdoor Mass at Revolution Plaza attended by President Raúl Castro and other leaders, and later met with the country’s former leader, Fidel Castro.
At Revolution Plaza, Francis arrived at about 8:30 a.m. in his familiar open-air popemobile, which moved through the crowd of thousands of people before delivering him to a covered stage for the service. Francis praised the vibrancy of the Cuban people and urged them to pursue a Christian model of selfless service.
“Whatever wishes to be great must serve others, not be served by others,” Francis said during his homily.
The scene blended faith, politics and revolution: Huge portraits of two revolutionary heroes, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, overlook the square, which also had large banners of Jesus and Mother Teresa. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Francis’ native Argentina, also was in attendance.
In such a political setting, Francis made his most directly political remarks not about Cuba but on the Colombia peace talks underway here in Havana. Francis urged negotiators for the Colombian government and the FARC rebels to find a solution and end the decades-old conflict in their country.
“We do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation,” Francis said at the end of the Mass.
Afterward, the pope went to the home of Fidel Castro for what was described as informal visit with the leader of Cuba’s 1959 revolution. A papal spokesman said that Francis gave Fidel Castro a copy of his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si',” and several books. The meeting lasted about 40 minutes.
Francis was scheduled for a private meeting later in the day with Raúl Castro.
Francis’ trip through Cuba offers a telling look at unique challenges, and influence, that the first Latin American pontiff has in his native region. He is part rock star, part diplomat and part politician – even as his overriding priority is spiritual, and focused here on the Cuban church.
His outsized profile has also lifted expectations and pressures that he takes public positions on charged issues, like political and religious freedom. Cuban dissidents are pushing for the pope to meet them.
At the outdoor Mass, Francis cited the biblical story of the disciples quarreling over their importance – and Jesus’ rebuke of them – as an object lesson against “those who would be chosen for privileges, who would be above the common law, the general norm, in order to stand out in their quest for superiority over others.”
A spectrum of Cubans, from the devout to the secular, turned out to see the Mass, filling the entire plaza. Waves of people cheered and snapped photographs as he passed.
Whether religious or not, many Cubans cited the pope as the main force behind the recent rapprochement between their country and the United States.
Andy Peraza Gonzalez, 34, a Roman Catholic, had come with his family. “I think he is a great man. A person who focuses on the real problems of the world. He’s been a great help to our country,” Gonzalez said.
“The relation between Cuba and the United States gives all Cubans more hope,” he added.
Several 17-year-olds said they had been instructed by their company, which makes backpacks, to attend the Mass. Like many Cubans, they admitted they were not religious but they allowed that they believed in God.
One of them, Brayam Roche Barrera, said he and a friend had left home at 4 a.m. to arrive at the plaza well in advance of the crowds who had gathered for the Mass.
Although the young men had been compelled to be there, all said they felt an affinity for the pope. “I mean in reality he is the most beloved man in the world.” Roche said.
Like many Cubans, they could not say what, if any, profound changes might result from the papal visit, only that there seemed to be a promise of something better, including improved economic opportunities as the renewed relationship with the United States grows stronger.
“It’s a year of peace between the U.S. and Cuba and we have a lot of hope,” said Yosbany Alvarez Benítez. “But will things change? I don’t know.”