Day 2 in Cuba: Pope Benedict meets with Raul Castro in Havana

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 27, 2012 

HAVANA, Cuba — Pope Benedict XVI's whirlwind trip to Cuba neared its Wednesday climax — a papal Mass in Havana's massive Revolution Square — after a day of largely private events Tuesday that were remarkable as much for their symbolism and irony as for their substance.

The day began with the pope kneeling in the sanctuary of Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, in the mining town of El Cobre, where, in what might have been a gentle jab at Cuba's authoritarian government, he prayed that "nothing or no one take away the inner joy so characteristic of the Cuban soul."

The day ended 500 miles away with a private meeting with Raul Castro, Cuba's Marxist president, who gave the pope a replica of that same patron saint as a gift. The pope gave the atheist Castro a 15th Century atlas from the Vatican library.

The public events, too, offered scenes if not jarring, at least unexpected.

In Havana's 300-year-old Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, the archbishop of Miami, a city whose population is largely made up of refugees from the rule of the Castro brothers, celebrated a special Mass in which he referred to Marxism as "a spent ideology." When he finished, Archbishop Thomas Wenski received a standing ovation that lasted at least two minutes.

Even the crowds that lined streets to glimpse the pope seemed other than what was expected — they were overwhelmingly young, a welcome break, Vatican officials said, from the scene in Europe, where religion seems mostly a refuge for the old.

"For us who come from Europe, it is a different world," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Holy See's chief spokesman, told McClatchy. Among the European faithful, Lombardi, 69, joked, "I am a youngster."

What the pope and Raul Castro spoke about during their 40-minute talk was private, Vatican officials said. The two spoke through interpreters, which lengthened the meeting. Raul's older brother, Fidel, did not make an appearance, the Vatican said, though a meeting with the longtime dictator who turned power over to Raul in 2006 was still possible.

"The pope will be here until tomorrow in the afternoon. So the possibility still exists. He's still open and available for a meeting, " Lombardi said.

Elsewhere in Havana, enthusiasm seemed to be building toward Wednesday's open-air Mass, though how many Cubans would be able to make it through the tough security procedures was an open question.

Residents said security was noticeably tighter throughout Havana, with the number of police on street corners much higher than usual. Access to Revolution Square is expected to be limited and several roads around the plaza will be closed for hours leading up to the event.

"It's almost like God is visiting the country," said Yasser, a 27-year-old bartender in downtown Havana who declined to give his full name. "There are countries where the pope has never visited."

Benedict spent Monday night in the former mining town of El Cobre, about 20 minutes west of Santiago, the first stop on his Cuban odyssey, where on Monday he'd celebrated an outdoor Mass for tens of thousands of enthusiastic Cubans.

The crowds were just as welcoming Tuesday morning when Benedict arrived in a black sedan at the door of the Sanctuary of the Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, where the stairs were crowded with people jockeying for a view.

"You saw how the people received the pope here," said Fermin Carbonel, a lifelong Roman Catholic. "His visit is a good thing for all of Cuba, especially good for the children."

Kneeling to pray at the altar, Benedict gazed affectionately at the 15-inch-tall statue of Our Lady of Charity. Then, moving slowly, the 84-year-old pope lit a large candle in front of it.

Despite the early hour — the sun had risen only recently — Cubans packed the winding road to the hilltop sanctuary. They sang and chanted the pope's name, and after his televised prayer in the sanctuary, Benedict emerged to bless the throng outside. As he raised his arms, the crowd waved back enthusiastically.

The papal visit had been timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary tossed on the waves of a raging storm on the Bay of Nipe. The plank she rode on read, "I am the Virgin of Charity," and from then forward, Catholics have revered her as Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre. She became Cuba's patron saint in 1916.

While the pope's conversation with Raul Castro was private, Cuban church officials were expected to push for expanded freedoms, including religious education. During the Cold War years, when Cuba was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, religion was a roadblock to advancement up Communist Party ranks.

Today, Cubans can express their religion openly. But the school system, a source of pride for the Castro brothers, has traditionally been secular, whereas across Latin America the Catholic Church runs thousands of schools.

The pope also made an effort to reach out to the largely Afro-Cuban population of the island, who make up much of the dissident movement. Benedict on Tuesday gave the papal equivalent of a shout-out, spotlighting "Cubans who are the descendants of those who arrived here from Africa and the nearby people of Haiti."

One of them was Zaimi Rodriguez, 15, who attended Monday's Mass and said her interest in the Catholic faith has been piqued.

"I'm still not baptized, but I'm learning about the church," she said, adding that she began attending Mass regularly four months ago. "I feel it's something that suits me."

Her teenage friend Yelianis Tamayo Padello piped in, "There's peace and tranquility when you go to church. I like the feeling. When you go to church, they show movies about the life of Jesus and I find them very interesting."

That young Cubans are embracing faith — while the developed world has been losing the faithful — thrills Vatican leaders.

There's also a tremendous political consequence in attracting young Cubans, whom the pontiff cited in prayers at El Cobre and during Mass in Santiago.

Since Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in 1998, the church has gained importance in the eyes of Cubans, most of whom have grown up knowing only a single-party political system and a state that for 30 years was officially atheist.

"It has helped a lot of needy people," said Ariel, a farmer in central Cuba who is not a practicing Catholic but who welcomed the church's growing role in helping the elderly and others in need.

The church is also positioning itself as an important voice in helping the island adjust to change when the Castro brothers — Fidel is 85 and Raul, 80 — pass in what can't be too many years.

The church doesn't say this directly, instead referencing the need for improved dialogue and reconciliation.

"This word reconciliation in his speech is very important for all Cubans," insisted Lombardi.

In his remarks upon arrival in Cuba on Monday, Benedict tweaked his hosts by noting that relations between the church and the state have improved, but "greater progress can and ought to be made."

Cuba officially became a secular state in 1992.

"What's remarkable today is that, while tensions between church and state haven't entirely disappeared, religious groups are playing an increasingly important role in shaping the future of Cuban society," Geoff Thale, a Cuba expert for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights watchdog group, said in an analysis of the papal visit.

(Whitefield, of The Miami Herald, reported from El Cobre, Hall, from Santiago, and Ordonez, from Havana.)

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