Pope Francis arrives in Cuba, gives first Mass in Havana and meets with Fidel

Posted: 21-Sep-15 11:12

Yesterday Pope Francis was landing in Havana for his first official visit to the country. He formally greeted Cuban President Raul Castro immediately after descending from the plane and was received by a cheering crowd of Cuban Catholic worshippers. It was a packed day for the Supreme Pontiff as he gave a public mass in Havana's iconic Revolution Square just hours after his arrival before meeting with Fidel Castro in what he described as "informal" and "familial" encounter. Just two days earlier the White House had released a readout of U.S. President Barack Obama's call to Cuban President Raul Castro, where both leaders commended the role that Pope Francis has played in advancing relations between the two countries.

Pope Francis arrives in Cuba, gives first Mass in Havana and meets with Fidel

Crowds packed the landmark Revolution Square for the Pope’s public mass yesterday in Havana, where it’s estimated that 300,000 Cubans gathered to witness the event. It was the very same site chosen by Pope John Paul II to address Cuban faithfuls when he became the first Supreme Pontiff to visit the island and more recently Pope Benedict XVI, who also gave a mass there.

Ahead of the Holy Mass and shortly after landing Pope Francis had shaken hands with Cuban President Raul Castro who arrived at the scene to formally welcome him to the country. Shortly after he made his way to the Revolution Square for Mass stopping along the way to greet cheering crowds. He rode along the streets of Havana in his open-sided popemobile from which he grasped the hands of many faithful followers and kissed children held up to him.

During Mass he urged attendants to serve each other instead of ideology whilst praising the spirit of poverty, commending Cubans on their famed generosity despite the hardships they faced and warning about the dangers of wealth.

"How many souls, like the one of the sad young man, who started off well, but who then became worldly, and ended mediocre, without love, because richness impoverishes. It makes us poor in the only wealth that is worth having, to put our safety in other things."

After mass, Pope Francis proceeded to visit former Cuban President and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in his private residence, where they chatted amicably, discussed the great problems of the contemporary world (including climate change, in which Fidel has taken a strong interest recently) and exchanged books.

In what many saw as a move to invite Fidel Castro (a declared atheist) to come to terms with his past as a youngster raised in Catholic faith and who attended a Jesuit school, much like the pontiff himself; Pope Francis brought Fidel three books including a volume of sermons by Fidel’s former teacher; Rev. Armando Llorente as well as two CDs with Llorente’s voice. Castro on his part gave Francis an interview book entitled “Fidel and Religion”, which he signed with a dedication that read:

"To Pope Francis, on occasion of his visit to Cuba, with the admiration and respect of the Cuban people."

Later on he held a private meeting with Fidel’s brother and current President Raul Castro, who has declared (albeit possibly jokingly) that he likes Pope Francis so much he was thinking of returning to his Catholic roots. The pointiff took the opportunity to thank the Cuban leader for his pardon to thousands of petty criminals before his arrival while Raul gifted him with an enormous sculpture of the Christ of on The Cross made by acclaimed Cuban artist Kcho and a painting of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

To round off the day the pontiff spoke of the virtues of poverty in an evening vespers service held at the San Cristobal Cathedral (also known as La Catedral de la Habana) before later meeting young Cuban people at the Centro Cultural Padre Felix Varela, where he went off the script and challenged them to dream boldly and work harder to shape their future.

"Open yourself, dream big, don’t strike yourself. Dream that the world with you, can be different. Dream that if you give the best of yourself, you’ll help make the world a different place. Don’t forget. Dream. Sometimes you dream too much and life cuts your path. It doesn’t matter, dream, and share your dream, make it big, because bigger the ability to dream, even if life leaves you half way to it, you would have walked a longer path."

Pope Francis who is in Cuba for a three-day visit (and who will head to the U.S. on Tuesday afternoon), will be visiting Santiago de Cuba next, where he will stop at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity (Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre), Cuba’s patron saint and where he will give another public mass. The Basilica El Cobre or Santuario de la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, is a highly symbolic and emblematic pilgrimage site to many faithful Cubans who come here to show their devotion to the miraculous virgin. Prior to his visit, the Pope himself expressed his intention and fervent desire to make a personal pilgrimage to this sacred site.


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