Meeting with Fidel Castro and in a Mass before half a million people, Pope Benedict XVI urged Cuba to allow for greater freedom for the Catholic Church. On the last day of his Latin America tour, which also included stops in Mexico and Santiago, Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI met with Cuba’s revolutionary leader at the Vatican Embassy in Havana. The meeting, which lasted about a half-hour, was marked by “intense, cordial and serene dialogue,” said Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi.
This is the first time Fidel Castro, 85, has met with Pope Benedict XVI, 84. He met with Pope John Paul II twice—at the Vatican in 1996 and in Cuba in 1998. According to Lombardi, the two joked about their age, and Castro asked the Pope about changes in the Catholic liturgy since his days as a young student at a Jesuit school. For his part, Pope Benedict spoke of his gladness to be in Cuba and the warm reception he had received.
The intimate meeting between the two leaders followed remarks by the Pope before a much larger audience in Revolutionary Square, where he delivered a midday Mass. With an estimated 500,000 people in attendance, and President Raúl Castro seated in the front row, the Pope’s message of religious—and political—opening was clear. “It must be said with joy that in Cuba steps have been taken to enable the church to carry out her essential mission of expressing her faith openly and publicly,” he said. “Nonetheless, this must continue forward.” The Pope told those gathered in the square to search for truth, the search for which “supposes the exercise of authentic freedom.”
It was unclear how the Pope’s homily was received. Many cheered on his call for an expanded role of the Catholic Church in Cuba, while others simply said they “came for curiosity.”