By Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES — The most political part of Pope Francis’ visit to the Cuba came to a close on Sunday. Public criticisms levelled at ideologies before thousands of people marked the Pope’s second day on the socialist island. Hours later, His Holiness also had one of the most anticipated meetings of his trip, an encounter with Fidel Castro.
The visit to the home of Cuba’s historical leader was made prior to his meeting with President Raul Castro, who had welcomed the pontiff on Saturday and attended the Pope’s mass at Revolution Square very early on Sunday. Opposition activists reported arrests during the ceremony.
The open-air mass was one of the most highly awaited moments of Francis’ four-day visit to the island. People were particularly interested in hearing the pastoral message of his address, in which his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, made allusions to Cuba’s social and political realities (in 1998 and 2012, respectively).
Pope Francis did this also. The Argentine Jesuit chose “service unto others” as the issue of his homily, which included criticisms that may be interpreted as political.
“There’s a way of helping which stems from an interest in benefiting my “own,” in the name of what’s “ours,” Francis said.
“This kind of service always leaves “your kind” out, leading to a process of exclusion,” he regretted. “That is why help is never ideological, as one does not serve ideas, one serves people.” The homily was pronounced before a multitude that the Vatican later reported was made up of some 200,000 people.
The mass was attended by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, personally invited by Raul Castro, as well as by hundreds of invitees from the high echelons of the socialist government and tens of thousands of church-goers and curious people, who arrived at the square hours in advance.
“We stayed up all night so we could make it,” Ana Maria Ferrer, a 52-year-old Catholic woman from Havana told DPA. Cuban authorities also deployed buses to transport government sympathizers to Havana’s renowned square, known, among other things, for its gigantic metal relief sculpture of Che Guevara.
Later in the day, opposition groups reported that several dissident activists had been arrested. Some 20 activists from the Ladies in White opposition ground were arrested at around five in the morning while heading to the square, Berta Soler, the group’s leader, told DPA.
On her Twitter account, dissident Martha Beatriz Roque accused authorities of detaining her while trying to reach the Havana Cathedral. The church confirmed it had invited Roque to take part in a function that Pope Francis would take part in, adding it was not aware of the detentions.
During the afternoon event held at the Cathedral, as well as during the gathering with hundreds of young people at the nearby Felix Varela Cultural Center, the Pope appeared jovial and relaxed. At several moments throughout the day, the pontiff had been tired, spokesman Lombardi had announced. “But, when he starts to speak spontaneously, he has tremendous energy,” he added.
Francis put aside the speech he’d prepared to address the young. “Let us learn to accept that we think differently,” His Holiness told those present, calling on them not to allow themselves to “become locked in the cloisters of ideologies.” The Pope Mobile had been received with cries of joy around Old Havana, after the Pope emerged from his meeting with Raul Castro at the Palacio de la Revolucion.
The much-awaited and never-confirmed visit to Fidel Castro’s home in Havana’s west supposedly took place following the mass. It was a very relaxed and “informal” gathering that lasted around 30 to 40 minutes, the Vatican spokesman explained. Castro and the Pope exchanged books as gifts.
Cuba’s official media later broadcast images of the encounter between the 78-year-old Pope and 89-year-old former leader of Cuba, where several of Castro’s relatives were present.
Francis will travel to Holguin today as part of his historic visit to Cuba. The Argentine Pope will hold another open-air mass there before heading to the city of Santiago de Cuba, where his trip will come to a close. On Tuesday, Francis will depart for the United States.