Pope wraps Cuba visit with Mass, Fidel meeting
By NICOLE WINFIELD and PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA, Cuba -- Pope Benedict XVI wraps up his visit to Cuba on
Wednesday with an open-air Mass in the shrine of the Cuban revolution,
hoping to revive the Catholic faith in this communist-run country. His
other appointment promises a far more tantalizing climax: a meeting with
The former Cuban leader announced late Tuesday that he would happily
meet with Benedict, saying he was asking for just a "few minutes of his
very busy time" in Havana.
The Vatican had already said Benedict was available, so the confirmation
from Castro was all that was needed to seal the appointment and end
weeks of speculation as to whether Castro would repeat the meeting he
held with Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 visit.
"I will happily greet His Excellency Pope Benedict XVI as I did John
Paul II, a man for whom contact with children and the humble raised
feelings of affection," Castro wrote. "That's why I decided to ask for a
few minutes of his very busy time when I heard from the mouth of our
foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, that he would be agreeable."
The audience and Benedict's Mass in Revolution Plaza come 14 years after
John Paul preached on the same spot before hundreds of thousands of
people, Fidel among them. Then, an image of Jesus Christ was displayed
opposite the plaza's iconic image of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che"
Guevara, a remarkable development for a country that had been officially
atheist until 1992.
This time around, a huge poster of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of
Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of one of the buildings facing the
plaza near Che. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict's
three-day visit, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the
appearance of the diminutive statue.
Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of
Santiago on Tuesday morning and prayed to her for greater freedom and
renewal for all Cubans - another gentle nudge to the government to
continue opening itself up to greater reforms.
"I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country,
advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of
all Cubans," the pope said. "I have also prayed to the Virgin for the
needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those
who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of
It wasn't long before a top official in Havana responded: "In Cuba,
there will not be political reform," said Marino Murillo, Cuba's
economic czar and a vice president.
Benedict had begun his trip to Mexico and Cuba by asserting that Marxism
as it was originally conceived is irrelevant for today's reality. Upon
arriving on Cuban soil, however, he softened the message that clearly
irritated his hosts, pressing gently instead for the Roman Catholic
Church to play a greater role in Cuban life and for Cuba's people to
enjoy greater freedoms.
The Vatican spokesman said the Holy See didn't take Murillo's comments
as a rebuff to Benedict's call, noting that the pope isn't a political
leader who can change laws or political systems. But he said Benedict
does have some concrete hopes for the visit.
During a nearly hour-long meeting Tuesday with Cuban President Raul
Castro - twice the normal length of papal audiences with heads of state
- Benedict asked that the government declare a holiday for Good Friday,
when Catholics commemorate the death of Christ.
The request, like so much of this trip, was a follow-up of sorts to
Cuba's decision to declare Christmas a national holiday in honor of John
Paul's 1998 visit. Cubans hadn't had Christmas off for nearly 30 years.
"It's not that it changes reality in a revolutionary way, but it can be
a sign of a positive step - as was the case of Christmas after John
Paul's visit," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The government didn't give an immediate response, but Lombardi said it
was only natural for Cuba to take time to consider it. The government,
which frequently declares holidays at the last minute, could make a
quick gesture in honor of Benedict given that Good Friday this year
falls in less than two weeks, on April 6.
Benedict also raised "humanitarian" issues with Raul Castro, an apparent
reference to political prisoners. Lombardi said he didn't know if
individual cases were discussed.
Primarily, though, Benedict came to Cuba to try to win a greater place
in society for the Catholic Church, which has been marginalized in the
six decades of Castro family rule.
The island's Communist government never outlawed religion, but it
expelled priests and closed religious schools after Fidel Castro came to
power in 1959. Tensions eased in the early 1990s when the government
removed references to atheism in the constitution and let believers of
all faiths join the Communist Party.
John Paul's 1998 visit further warmed relations. But despite years of
lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or
television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been
granted permission to build new places of worship. Only about 10 percent
of Cubans are practicing Catholics.
"Naturally a papal visit hopes to be an impulse for further steps, be it
for the life of the church or for the good of society in its entirety,"
Lombardi told reporters, citing media, education and health care as
areas where the church wants a greater say.
But in a country that once preached atheism and still is dominated by
Marxist thought, that's not just a hard sell for the government, but for
ordinary Cubans alike.
Ana Blanco, a 47-year-old Havana resident, complained that people were
being told to attend Wednesday's Mass, saying the pressure seemed odd in
a country that in her early years taught her religion was wrong.
"Now there's this visit by the pope, and I don't agree with giving it so
much importance or making anyone go to the Mass or other activities,"
the office worker said. "Before it was bad, now it's good. That creates
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Vivian Sequera, Anne-Marie Garcia
and Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.