“Francis, you bring us hope,” read one of the banners of welcome to Pope Francis in Cuba. Pope Francis had announced that he was going to Cuba as a “Missionary of peace.”
On 19 September, Pope Francis received a red-carpet welcome at the Havana airport, complete with a military honour guard and a handshake from a dark-suited Raul Castro. Smiling children handed him flowers, and a band played the Cuban national anthem before Castro and then the pope took turns speaking. The Pope extended his greeting “to embrace especially all those who, for various reasons, I will not be able to meet,” a possible nod to political dissidents as well as average Cubans.
Pope Francis hailed the opening of embassies by the United States and Cuba as a model of reconciliation. He urged both the Presidents to continue working to build normal ties.
Less than a third of Cubans identify as Catholic, but rural Cubans are speaking warmly of the pope’s role in mediating detente between the U.S. and Cuba.
Come to me
“Come to me,” was the invitation of Jesus Christ put up on the Revolution square, dominated by the image of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara. At the Mass celebrated under hot sun thousands participated. Francis told them, “Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living it.”
He made a clear distinction between a Christian model of service and what he described as “service which is self-serving.” Most critically, Francis insisted “Whoever wishes to be great must serve others, not be served by others,” he said. “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
He later listened to a Daughter of Charity talk about her work with people with severe disabilities, Pope Francis set aside his prepared speech and spoke about serving those the world considers “useless.”
“Serving ‘the useless’ makes Jesus shine,” the Pope said at an evening prayer service with religious, priests and seminarians.
He told priests, “Jesus did not berate sinners; he embraced them. The confessional is where every man and woman reveals his or her misery. If you are without sin, throw the first stone, but only on that condition,” the Pope told the priests.
Poverty, he said, can be a person’s greatest wealth. The search for wealth can destroy a person’s life. Quoting St Ignatius of Loyola, the Pope said poverty “is the wall and the mother” of consecrated life. It blocks out worldliness and stimulates trust in God. “Love poverty the way you love your mother,” he told them.
He expressed his concern that the Society tends to discard anything or anyone that is not useful or productive, including young people and the elderly. “Societies and nations that do not invest in their young people, but are stripping themselves of hope.”
After the Mass, the Pope held an “intimate and familial,” meeting with 89-year-old former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, spending 40 minutes together. Francis brought Fidel Castro three books including a volume of sermons by Fidel’s former teacher, Rev. Amando Llorente. Llorente taught at Collegio de Belen, a Jesuit high school where Fidel was a student. Llorente, a Spaniard, was forced out of the country after Castro’s revolution and died in Miami in 2010. Francis also brought two compact discs with Llorente’s voice and a copy of his encyclical on environment – “Lauudato Si’.”
Francis also met Fidel’s brother Raul for an hour. A declared atheist, he had said, he liked the pope so much that he was thinking of returning to his Catholic roots. Francis thanked the 84 year old leader for his pardon of 3500 petty criminals before his arrival. Castro presented the pontiff with a huge sculpture of the crucified Christ made of oars by the artist Kcho and a painting of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
In the city of Holguin, Francis reiterated the theme of dignity as rooted in the love of Christ. At Mass referring to St. Mathew’s feast, he said, “Jesus’ love goes before us…He can see beyond appearances…He sees our dignity as sons and daughters, a dignity all of us have…”
Pope Francis also visited the Shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Virgen de la Caridad in el Cobre near Santiago, Our Lady of Charity, and the patroness of Cuba since 1916. He celebrated Mass there this morning. He prayed that Cuba abandons her atheist and despotic past and embrace a future of dignity, of mercy and of genuine hope.
Before bidding “goodbye” Pope Francis met with families. He told them, “It is in the home that we experience forgiveness that we are continually asked to forgive and to grow. It’s interesting; in the home there is no room for ‘putting on masks’: we are who we are, and in one way or another we are called to do our best for others.”
The Pope lamented that the experience of family is “disappearing,” and consequently “everything is slowly breaking up, growing apart. He pleaded, “Let us leave behind a world with families.”
He then asked pregnant mothers to keep their hands on their bellies. He blessed babies in their wombs and extended that blessing to all babies in wombs across the world.
He thanked Cubans for their warm hospitality. Before the Pope left, Cubans saw on their televisions how the Pope took President Raul Castro’s hand and brought it to his heart as they were saying goodbye.
In Cuba, many are saying the long awaited visit of Pope Francis brought many blessings – even rainfall. After a drought-ridden season, rain fell over Cuba on Monday and more was expected Tuesday. Many in the island were calling it “holy water.”