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Pope Benedict XVI: “Cuba and the world need change.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the pope’s words from Mass in Havana and meeting with Fidel Castro.
HAVANA, Cuba — Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass on Wednesday in this revolutionary island’s capital city, telling Cubans that change must come for all.
“Cuba and the world need change,” the pope said in his homily. But change can happen only “if each one is in conditions to ask about truth and decide to take the path of love, sowing reconciliation and brotherhood.”
Benedict presided over a large, outdoor Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution — the same site where John Paul II spoke, and where former President Fidel Castro rallied Cubans to his Marxist worldview in countless speeches since taking power in 1959.
With Cuba's Communist leaders sitting in the front row, Benedict spoke softly in Spanish from the pulpit, a massive iconic image of rebel hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara looming behind him.
The pope spoke of the virtues of "authentic freedom" and told a Biblical story of religious persecution under an oppressive Babylonian king.
"Benedicto," as the pope is known in Spanish, then met for 30 minutes with Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro, who had said he hoped for just "a few minutes of his very busy time."
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At the outset of the trip, on his flight from Italy, Benedict told reporters that the Marxist model “no longer corresponds to reality.”
But the pontiff hasn’t said anything nearly as pointed since arriving to Cuba Monday after a three-day visit to Mexico, in his first visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America.
The pope has echoed the urgings of Cuba’s own clergy, encouraging dialogue, reconciliation and a greater role for church teachings in Cubans’ lives. But the Vatican leader has left the political content of his remarks mostly in the realm of generalities. He has not directly challenged either Cuba’s authorities or the long-standing American trade embargo, which he opposes.
In deeply devout Mexico, the cheering crowds seemed thrilled simply to be in the pope’s presence. But here in Cuba, where less than 10 percent of the population attends Mass, it is the content of Benedict’s words that define his visit. Many non-Catholic Cubans have listened carefully for political messages in his sermons.
"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 Tuesday morning during his visit to the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint. The saint’s 400th anniversary is the stated purpose of Benedict’s visit.
"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 difficulty,” he said.
When Pope John Paul II memorably asked for “Cuba to open to the world, and for the world to open to Cuba,” the line lingered long after he left — even if many today would argue his words remain unfulfilled.
Benedict, 84, has said he wants to carry on that legacy. But it’s unclear yet if he will be able to add to it.
With some 800 foreign journalists on the island this week to cover the papal visit, Cuba’s leaders have worked to head off any criticism that might be forthcoming by letting their views be known.
On the one hand, they have gone to great lengths to ensure a smooth reception for Benedict, busing Cubans from all over the island to his events, and building special outdoor platforms for both of his Masses, which are carried live on television.
But Cuba is not letting the pope’s words go unchallenged.
After warmly receiving Benedict on a red carpet at the Santiago de Cuba airport Monday, Raul Castro leveled several broadsides at Washington, blaming “the greatest power the world has ever known” for trying to deprive Cuba of “freedom, peace and justice.”
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At a press conference Tuesday morning in Havana, Marino Murillo, the Cuban official in charge of leading Cuba’s economic reform process, said the island was open to whatever is necessary to bring growth, including the suggestions of supportive foreigners. But he made clear that the kind of wider changes urged by Benedict and the church were not in the offing.
“In Cuba there will not be political reform. What we’re updating is our economic model,” Murillo said.
Benedict was not scheduled to meet with Cuban dissidents, which Castro opponents on the island and abroad have taken as a snub.
Elizardo Sanchez, whose Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation keeps tallies of police actions against dissidents, said that more than 150 government opponents have been detained recently across the island. Another 200 had been told not to attend Wednesday’s Mass, he said, and scores of anti-Castro activists reported that their cell phones had been disabled.