Published March 27, 2012
Fox News Latino
Santiago de Cuba – Pope Benedict XVI gently urged Cubans to come
together to build a more open society on Monday at a speech in the
eastern city of Santiago.
The pope spent the night in a brand-new home built just for him near the
sanctuary of Cuba's Virgin of Charity icon, where he will kneel in quiet
prayer early Tuesday before heading to the capital for political meetings.
The pontiff's brief homage to the diminutive statue that many consider
the symbolic mother of all Cubans — Catholics and non-Catholics alike —
will take place in the morning in the small mining town of El Cobre.
Benedict planned to fly to Havana later to meet with President Raúl
Castro and possibly Fidel Castro, though that had not been confirmed.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is in Havana undergoing radiation
therapy for cancer, did not ask for an audience but would be welcome to
attend Mass in the capital's Revolution Square on Wednesday, a Vatican
Under a light rain late Monday, Benedict emphasized family and faith
during a Mass celebrated before Raúl Castro and tens of thousands of
people including Cuban-Americans on a pilgrimage to the communist-run
Images from the Papal Visit to Mexico and Cuba
"I appeal to you to reinvigorate your faith ... that you may strive to
build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of
humanity," he said in a country where Roman Catholics now account for 10
percent of the population.
Aides held a white umbrella over the pontiff as worshippers approached
to take communion, and Castro climbed the stairs to congratulate the
pope when the Mass ended.
The 84-year-old pontiff's voice sounded tired and he seemed exhausted by
the end of the day after a vigorous four days of travel. The Vatican
spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged Benedict's fatigue
but said his health was fine.
Just before the ceremony began, a man tried to enter an area reserved
for foreign journalists shouting anti-government slogans such as "Down
with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!" He was led away by
security agents. It was not clear who he was or what happened to him.
The government did not comment.
Benedict's trip to Cuba comes 14 years after Pope John Paul II's
historic tour, when the Polish pontiff who helped bring down communism
in his homeland admonished Fidel Castro to free prisoners of conscience,
end abortion and let the Roman Catholic Church take its place in society.
The current pope arrived in the afternoon in Santiago to an airport
reception that included a military band, an honor guard, a gaggle of
robed clergy, Raúl Castro and Cabinet ministers.
Benedict gently pressed the longtime communist leaders to push through
the reforms desired by their people, while also criticizing the excesses
of capitalism. His words were subtle and appeared to take into account
the liberalizing reforms that Raúl Castro has enacted since taking over
from his older brother in 2006 and the greater role the Catholic Church
has played in Cuban affairs, most recently in negotiating the release of
dozens of political prisoners.
Cuban Americans Flock to Cuba to See the Pope
The pontiff, who before starting his trip in Mexico said Marxism "no
longer responds to reality," said he hoped his visit would inspire and
encourage Cubans on the island and beyond.
"I carry in my heart the just aspirations and legitimate desires of all
Cubans, wherever they may be," he said. "Those of the young and the
elderly, of adolescents and children, of the sick and workers, of
prisoners and their families, and of the poor and those in need."
Castro told Benedict his country is committed to freedom of faith and
has good relations with religious institutions. He also criticized the
50-year U.S. economic embargo and defended the socialist ideal of
providing for those less fortunate.
"We have confronted scarcity but have never failed in our duty to share
with those who have less," Castro said, adding that Cuba remains
determined to chart its own path and resist efforts by "the most
forceful power that history has ever known" — a reference to the United
States — to thwart the island's socialist model.
Benedict then traveled by popemobile into Santiago, Cuba's second city,
barely waving through the glass to onlookers who lined the streets and
"I thought this was amazing. This was such a labor of love and faith,"
said Rita Freixas, a Miami Beach resident who hadn't visited Cuba since
her family left when she was 1 year old. She traveled back to the island
with her sons and a friend as part of a delegation organized by the
Archdiocese of Miami. "I am so happy to be back here. I am so happy to
Crackdown on Dissidents Precedes Pope's Arrival in Cuba
Tuesday was scheduled to be a day relatively light on public appearances
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski planned to celebrate a Mass in the
afternoon in the Havana cathedral in the picturesque historic colonial
Late Monday, Benedict bedded down in a humble but air-conditioned house
constructed in recent weeks with $86,000 in church funds, made of
reinforced concrete designed to withstand a magnitude-8 earthquake.
It was just 200 yards (meters) from the El Cobre sanctuary, where he
planned a private, spiritual moment Tuesday morning paying homage to the
statue of the Virgin of Charity. Its 400th anniversary was cited as a
main reason why Benedict chose to visit Cuba this year.
Just over a foot (35 centimeters) tall, the wooden statue is one of the
most powerful Catholic icons in the world, and an object of pride and
reverence for hundreds of thousands in Cuba. It was taken to Monday's
Mass on the top of a truck to the joy of the faithful present.
"She is a beauty, the most extraordinary thing," Mercy Serra said as the
statue made its way through the crowd. "She is the mother of all Cubans."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.