Sunday, September 20, 2015 11:38 pm
Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square on Sunday and met with former leader Fidel Castro but warned Cubans against the dangers of ideology as their country enters a new era of closer ties with the United States.
Tens of thousands of people were in the square where Cubans celebrate May Day beneath massive portraits of revolutionary leaders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos built into the facades of state buildings.
To welcome the pope, who helped bring about the recent rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, a similarly giant poster of Jesus Christ was hung nearby.
The 78-year-old Argentine pontiff read a mostly religious homily but sprinkled it with criticism of “elitism” and ideology.
“Service is never ideological for we do not serve ideas, we serve people,” he said in his homily of the Mass, which was attended by President Raul Castro and top members of the communist government.
Francis later met with Fidel Castro, who led Cuba’s 1959 revolution and then built a one-party state that improved health and education services for Cubans but also limits democratic freedoms and represses dissent.
Cuban police kept some dissidents from attending the pope’s Mass on Sunday morning and pounced on others apparently attempting to hand out flyers near the plaza.
In what government opponents could see as a criticism of party bureaucracy, he said Jesus’ apostles foolishly argued about their rank and the pope compared it to “those who climb the ladder most quickly to take the jobs which carry certain benefits”.
Francis also appeared to appeal to Cubans to look after each other as the country faces social changes and economic openings.
Francis waved and greeted Cubans as he arrived at the Mass, delighting one family when he picked up and kissed a four-year-old girl Karen Correoso. “It’s a historic moment for her and for us. He blessed her,” said the girl’s aunt, Maria Teresa Gonzalez, 64, from a church in Matanzas city.
Many Cubans appreciate the pope for his role in the secret talks that led to last December’s breakthrough with Washington, when Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to normalize relations and end half a century of Cold War-era animosity.
Francis will fly from Cuba to Washington on Tuesday for meetings with Obama and addresses at the U.S. Congress and United Nations.
*Reported by Reuters. Photographs by Vatican