Updates from Sunday:
HAVANA, CUBA (WFLA) –
Pope Francis is presiding over a vespers service in Havana’s 18th century Immaculate Conception and San Cristobal cathedral.
Bells rang out and a few hundred excited and sweaty priests and sisters clapped and shouted “Francisco!” as the pope arrived. An organ broke into a celebratory hymn.
The cathedral was first started by priests of Francis’ Jesuit order and the facade was designed by the Italian architect Borromini. It boasts a large bronze statue of St. John Paul II, who became the first pope to visit Cuba in 1998, as well as a replica of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
Pope Francis has thanked Raul Castro for his welcome at Havana’s airport on Saturday and for the Cuban president’s pardons for 3,522 prisoners convicted of relatively minor crimes.
In a partially audible Associated Press recording of their exchange before a private meeting, Francis is heard saying: “In the first place I want to thank you for the warmth of the reception, the fact that in your speech you’ve cited things that really send a signal of (inaudible) and warmth. I also want to thank you for the pardons.”
Cuban President Raul Castro is showing Pope Francis what appear to be official gifts for the pontiff on display inside the Palace of the Revolution: a huge crucifix made of oars, which is being presented by the Cuban artist known as Kcho, and a painting of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
Pope Francis’ gifts for Fidel Castro are raising some eyebrows.
He brought the retired Cuban leader a collection of sermons by Castro’s former Jesuit teacher, the Rev. Amando Llorente, and two CD recordings of the Spanish priest speaking. Llorente taught at a Jesuit high school where Fidel was a student, but he was forced to leave Cuba soon after Castro took power in 1959 and expelled foreign clerics. He died in Miami in 2010.
Francis biographer Austen Invereigh says he thinks the pope is sending a subtle message to a man whose rule was marked by conflict with the Catholic Church and other groups. During his visit Francis has emphasized reconciliation between Cubans living on the island and overseas.
Invereigh says he “can’t help but think that it’s Pope Francis inviting Fidel Castro to come to terms with his past.”
Pope Francis is at the Palace of the Revolution, Cuba’s seat of government, for a state meeting with President Raul Castro. The two men are greeting Cuban cardinals and government officials.
Among those attending is first Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man widely expected to assume the presidency in 2018 when Castro says he intends to step down.
A photograph shows the meeting between Pope Francis and Fidel Castro at the former Cuban leader’s home.
The former president and the pope look each other in the eyes as they shake hands. Francis is wearing his white vestments, and Castro is clad in a white, button-down shirt and a sporty sweatshirt.
The image was shot by Alex Castro, Fidel’s son and official photographer, and was provided to The Associated Press.
Pope Francis has issued a personal invitation for people to join him in Philadelphia next weekend. Whether a million or more people show up, as projected, remains an open question. A campaign to encourage attendance at the papal Mass and other events features the slogan “I’ll be there.”
In a videotaped message the pope says, “I will be there because you will be there! See you in Philadelphia!”
Some travel restrictions have been eased, cutting walking distances. But there are still hotel rooms and plenty of rail passes to be had.
The secured site of the pope’s two biggest events is the mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway. New estimates put its capacity at about 250,000 people.
Other visitors will have to watch on jumbo TV screens near the parkway or in other locations around the city. Church officials say that was always the plan.
The Vatican spokesman says Pope Francis and Fidel Castro exchanged gifts of books during their half-hour meeting at the former Cuban leader’s home. Federico Lombardi says the pontiff presented Castro with a volume written by a Jesuit who taught him at the Catholic school he attended as a child.
Castro gave the pope a collection of his own conversations about religion with Brazilian cleric Frei Betto.
Here are updates from earlier in the day:
Cuban President Raul Castro is the first to greet Pope Francis after the pontiff celebrated Mass in Havana’s Revolution Plaza. Francis also chatted briefly with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and island religious leaders.
Two aides steadied the pope as he climbed the stairs to the altar, and again when he descended. He suffers from sciatica and occasionally walks with a limp.
Pope Francis is begging Colombia’s government and largest guerrilla army to end South America’s longest-running conflict, saying they cannot allow another failure to derail peace efforts. Francis issued the appeal Sunday from Revolution Plaza in Havana, where peace talks underway for more than two years between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and representatives of Bogota aim to end a half-century of fighting.
He said: “May the blood shed by thousands of innocent people during long decades of armed conflict” sustain efforts to find a definitive peace.
Francis added: “Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.”
The church’s first Latin American pope recently helped nudge forward the historic reconciliation between the United States and Cuba with a personal appeal to the leaders of both countries.
Pope Francis is urging Cubans to look out for one another and not just judge others based on what they are or are not doing. Francis directed the message to thousands of Cubans gathered Sunday for his first Mass in Havana’s Revolution Plaza. He told them that those who want to be great must serve others, and not be served by them. He said Cubans should avoid “judgmental looks.”
He said “All of us are asked, indeed urged, by Jesus to care for one another out of love … Without looking to one side or the other to see what our neighbor is doing or not doing.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what Francis was referring to. But many Cubans complain about the rigidity of a system in which virtually every aspect of life is controlled by the government, from cultural institutions to block-level neighborhood watch committees, in which people are excluded or lose benefits if they are perceived as being disloyal or unfaithful to the principles of the revolution.
That has eased in recent years, but it remains a problem in the eyes of many islanders and outside observers.
Many Cubans are also increasingly concerned about growing inequality, as those with access to foreign capital live better than others who struggle to feed themselves, generating jealousy and division within families and society at large.
News Channel 8’s Gene Ramirez was in Cuba Sunday morning as Pope Francis started celebrating mass. The service started around 9 p.m. Thousands gathered to hear the pope.
Here’s what Gene said about the mass:
“When it came time to offer each other a sign of peace, a ritual in Catholic mass, this man turned to shake my hand. I couldn’t think of a better person to share this moment with. His name is Gonzalo Gonzalez and he’s the photographer for the Archdiocese of Havana. Before the mass, he shared with me that he’s never met his son, Jorge. Jorge’s mother fled the revolution while pregnant and Gonzalo stayed behind. Many families thought separation would be temporary while the political situation in Cuba was sorted out. Jorge was born in Florida 33 years ago, and for 33 years Gonzalo has tried to travel to the U.S. to meet his son only to be denied time and again. This is the story of the Cuban people.”