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Pope tells Cubans that families are opportunities, not problems
By Ezra Fieser
SANTIAGO, Cuba (CNS) — Pope Francis ended his trip to Cuba by blessing the city of Santiago de Cuba and telling Cubans to treat family as an “opportunity” rather than a problem.
Families are “an opportunity that we must protect and care for,” he said at a meeting with Cuban families at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. “Without family, without the warmth of home, life becomes empty.”
Pope Francis, who began his remarks by wishing a happy 36th birthday to a Cuban man who read a message welcoming him to Santiago, said he felt like he was with family on his three-city tour of the Caribbean country.
“This meeting with you is like the icing on the cake,” he told the crowd. “Ending my visit living this meeting among family is reason to give thanks to God for the warmth of the people who know how to welcome someone, who know how to embrace someone, who know how to make someone feel like they are at home. Thank you to all Cubans.”
Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago opened the meeting by telling Pope Francis that “family is the institution that Cubans value most. And that’s precisely why it’s the most concerning because there are so many factors that threaten its unity, its well-being.”
Pope Francis warned that modern pressures have the ability to eat away at the space that families need to thrive.
“Today, those family moments and spaces are disappearing,” he said. “Little by little, everything is leading toward separating, isolating, leaving fewer moments to be together as a family.”
The pope said that, as a consequence of the family structure being torn apart, societies around the world are increasingly “divided, broken, separated and overcrowded.”
“Family is the school of humanity,” he said.
Pope Francis arrived at the restored cathedral — constructed on the site where the first Cuban cathedral was constructed in 1522 — after celebrating Mass at the Minor Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, about 12 miles from Santiago.
Pope Francis used his blessing of the city of Santiago de Cuba — during the year of the 500th anniversary of its founding –- to also bless all pregnant women around the world and to highlight the importance of grandparents.
He then rode through grassy-banked streets lined with people waving small Cuba and Vatican City flags toward the airport, where President Raul Castro escorted him to the steps of his Washington-bound plane.
Pope calls for ‘revolution of tenderness’ in Cuba
By Cindy Wooden
SANTIAGO, Cuba (CNS) — Pope Francis called Cuban to a “revolution of tenderness” as he celebrated Mass in the Minor Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s patroness.
While only about 60 percent of Cubans are baptized Catholics, the little statue of Our Lady of Charity, discovered 400 years ago, is also a widely recognized symbol of Cuban identity and of strength despite struggle.
Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago, president of the Cuban bishops’ conference, told the pope at the end of Mass, “Believers and nonbelievers consider her a clear symbol of Cuban identity because in her we see reflected the greatness yearnings and aspirations of our people.”
Celebrating Mass early Sept. 22 — just a few hours before he was scheduled to fly to Washington — Pope Francis told Cubans, “Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in and to serve the life of others.”
Like Mary, who made haste to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the Catholic Church wants to be with Cubans in their state of hope and expectation, “to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation,” the pope said.
In the hours before Mass as the sun rose and roosters crowed, residents began to line the streets of El Cobre, a small town outside of Santiago.
“It’s important that he’s coming here because Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul (II) were also here. For us, it’s an honor that the pope continues to recognize us,” said Carlos Anaya as he leaned against a wooden barrier on the sidewalk.
Just before 8 a.m., Pope Francis circled the grounds of the shrine, where a several hundred people gathered wearing white baseball hats that were handed out at the entrance and chanted “Francisco! Francisco!”
“To be able to see him this close, it’s amazing. It makes me feel hopeful,” said Oleydis Gonzalez, who stood near the back of the crowd and tried to record Pope Francis on a smartphone.
The crowd waved Cuban flags and cooled themselves with hand fans that depicted Pope Francis waving while standing in front of a Cuban flag. But there was little of the fanfare that greeted Pope Francis in Havana and Holguin. At least 250 chairs in the back of the outdoor viewing sat empty.
Cuban President Raul Castro was present for Mass in the shrine; he also attended the Masses that the pope celebrated earlier in Havana and Holguin.
Throughout his Sept. 19-22 stay in Cuba, Pope Francis preached the need to continue the official dialogue between the United States and Cuba, to heal hurt feelings existing between those who stayed in Cuba and those who emigrated and to ensure the nation’s future — no matter its economic and political system — is marked by concern for the weakest and poorest members of society.
During the Mass in the packed shrine — and with thousands watching from outside — Pope Francis paid special tribute to Cuba’s strong and steady grandmothers. They are the ones chiefly responsible for keeping the faith alive in the communist nation, he said.
The grandmothers, he said, “fostered, in the daily life of their homes, the living presence of God, the presence of the Father who liberates, strengthens, heals, grants courage and serves as a sure refuge and the sign of a new resurrection.”
Grandmothers and mothers “kept open a tiny space” through which the Holy Spirit “continued to accompany the heartbeat of this people,” the pope said.
The faith of Cubans, even if it is “small as a mustard seed,” is ready to grow, he said.
At the end of the Mass, Pope Francis officially opened the celebration of a jubilee year to mark the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV proclaiming Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre the patroness of Cuba. The celebrations will continue through Sept. 24, 2016.
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Contributing to this story was Ezra Fieser in El Cobre.
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Visit to Cuban shrine gives pope quiet time for prayer
By Cindy Wooden
SANTIAGO, Cuba (CNS) — In one of the calmer, more intimate moments of his visit to Cuba, Pope Francis and the country’s bishops offered special prayers to the Cuba’s patroness, Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
The prayer Sept. 21 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity marked the end of a long day for Pope Francis, a day that began in Havana, included a Mass and blessing in Holguin and ended in Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern tip of the island.
Before the prayer service, the pope spent close to 45 minutes meeting with Cuba’s 17 bishops. As is his custom with bishops’ conferences with few members, the pope did not have a prepared speech for the meeting, which was private.
Pope Francis spent about 10 minutes in silent prayer in front of the Marian statue, which was founded in 1606. The brief, formal prayer that followed highlighted how the title “Our Lady of Charity” reflects the truth that God is love and that he sent his son into the world.
The prayer asked God, through Mary’s intercession, to “give full freedom to the children of God.”
“Your name and image are sculpted in the minds and hearts of all Cubans, inside and outside the country, as a sign of hope,” said the prayer recited by the pope.
Addressing Mary as “mother of reconciliation,” he prayed that she would gather her scattered children and “make the Cuban nation a home of brothers and sisters,” who open their hearts and minds to Christ.
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Holguin Catholics experience the unimaginable: papal Mass in public
By Rhina Guidos
HOLGUIN, Cuba (CNS) — The scene would have been unimaginable a few years ago: A Catholic Mass in Holguin’s Revolution Plaza, where May Day parades and other patriotic events exalting the Cuban Revolution take place.
But on Monday, thousands flocked to the public space, also known as the Plaza Calixto Garcia Iniguez, and exalted Christ and the Virgin of Charity, as the city hosted its first religious event in that plaza: a Mass celebrated by the head of the Catholic Church.
A giant poster of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, faced the plaza in the distance, as well as the red star signaling the headquarters of the Cuban Communist Party. Workers and schoolchildren were given the day off to attend the event, though it was clear that some in the crowd, unsure of how to pray, arrived just to get a glimpse of Pope Francis.
It has not been easy to get to this point, said Maria del Carmen Zellek Camayd, a local Catholic doctor who attended the Sept. 21 Mass.
“We were terribly discriminated,” she said.
Up until a few years ago, Christians, but particularly Catholics, could not be members of the Communist Party in Cuba and were banned from holding certain jobs or coveted spots at universities following the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Many practiced the faith in secret, and those who did not hide it suffered.
But some like Zellek say the hardships that she and other Cuban Catholics have faced have served as “purification” for the people and the church they love. But after that “purification,” Catholics in Cuba are undergoing a period of fence-mending with Cuban authorities, who have worked with church officials to prepare events before the pope’s arrival.
Father Angel Andres Gonzalez of the Diocese of Holguin said there is still a long way to go until Christians can fully participate in Cuban society, but papal visits certainly help. When St. John Paul II visited Cuba, it helped the government open itself up to the Catholic Church, he said. Pope Francis’ visit, as his predecessors’ visits also have done, forced collaboration between the government and the church. They learned to work together and have established some level of trust, as well as new paths of communication, he said. It also strengthened the church because its members worked more in communion with one another, he said.
Pope Francis’ visit also has brought about renewed hope by many Catholics on the island who are calling for more spaces and more collaboration with the state so that Catholics can help the country in areas where help is needed, such as education and societal values.
Juana Dania Vaillnit and Francisco Reyes Mora, have been married for 50 years — a feat in a country where Catholic marriage, and even civil marriage, has become rare. They said the church can help young people prepare for marriage and a family, institutions that can strengthen Cuba.
“We have to recognize that we learned love through our ancestors, who learned it through religion, through the church. It’s a place that helps form values,” Reyes said.
Getting help and freedoms from the government is a first step, but having Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of the church, talk to young people about the future addresses the spiritual side, which a lot of young people struggle with, Vaillnit said.
But this pope, with his humility and simplicity, is able to walk the tightrope that might be required to help the church make even more progress, not just with the government but also with people who have grown up without faith, Zellek said.
On Monday, Pope Francis went to bless the city of Holguin from the top of a hill that has a cross. In a simple place, he offered a simple prayer, asking that God bless and light the lives of the families, children, young people, the sick, and all who suffer. It’s a place that, though humble, is of great importance to “Holguineros,” as the people of Holguin are called, said Oscar Ramirez, 69.
The cross is a symbol of the town but also of Cuba and its outlook on life. There are a lot of lessons to learn up there, lessons that the world can learn from Cuba, Ramirez said.
“We know how to carry the cross with dignity,” Ramirez said.
Like a lot of Latin American nations, Cuba is a place that values humility, values a person who works hard, is not ostentatious, knows how to deal with hardships and grows closer to God through them, he said.
In visiting a poor and complicated country that has deep wounds, Pope Francis was deliberate in the lesson he wants to teach others, Zellek said. Life in post-revolution Cuba was difficult for Catholics, but would have been even more difficult without the church, its priests and religious, its values, Zellek said.
“They taught us to adapt,” to remain charitable when others closed the doors to places of worship, and to find creative ways to remain faithful.
What she has learned from the journey, she said, is that by embracing all those hardships, she embraced the Gospel and learned the lesson the pope has come to Cuba to teach.
“I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation,” she said.
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A video to accompany this story can be found at https://youtu.be/pzsFbcq3yr4
Jesus’ love changes people, enables them to love others, pope says
By Cindy Wooden
HOLGUIN, Cuba (CNS) — Celebrating the feast of St. Matthew, a day he considers a turning point in his own journey of faith, Pope Francis told thousands of Cubans that Jesus knows who they really are and calls them to walk with him.
Arriving in the eastern city of Holguin from Havana Sept. 21, the pope went directly to the city’s Revolution Square for the feast day Mass. People had the day off work and off school so they could attend.
The pope explained to the people in the square that Matthew was a tax collector for the Roman occupiers, which meant that he was seen as a traitor to be shunned. But Jesus “looked at him with the eyes of mercy; he looked at him as no one had ever looked at him before.”
“And this look unlocked Matthew’s heart,” the pope said. “It set him free, it healed him, it gave him hope, a new life,” just as Jesus’ merciful gaze gives new life to men and women today.
The story of St. Matthew’s call and conversion is one the pope talks about often. The feast day is the first day of spring in Argentina, a day students have free from school. It was the day in 1953 that a 17-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio felt a strange urge to enter a church and go to confession. He often recounts the story and his feeling that the priest in the confessional was waiting just for him; it was the beginning of his vocation to be a Jesuit and a priest.
When Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, conducted the first long interview with Pope Francis in 2013, the pope told him Caravaggio’s painting of “The Calling of St. Matthew” reminds him of himself.
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew,” he told Father Spadaro. “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”
Father Spadaro wrote that the pope then whispered in Latin the words he said to the cardinals: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
Preaching under bright, sunny skies in Holguin, Pope Francis told the people, “Jesus’ love goes before us, his look anticipates our needs. He can see beyond appearances, beyond sin, beyond failures and unworthiness.”
Jesus, he said, sees “our dignity as sons and daughters, a dignity all of us have, a dignity sometimes sullied by sin, but one which endures in the depth of our soul.”
Pope Francis asked people in the crowd to find a quiet time at home or in a church to remember in silence and with gratitude an occasion when they felt that merciful gaze of Christ.
Jesus’ love, his mercy and his call to follow are also calls to love others, respect their dignity and show them mercy, the pope said. “Jesus’ love heals our short-sightedness and pushes us to look beyond, not to be satisfied with appearances or with what is politically correct.”
Pope Francis asked the crowd to practice gazing upon Jesus in the Eucharist, in confession and “in our brothers and sisters, especially those who feel excluded or abandoned. May we learn to see them as Jesus sees us.”
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Contributing to this story was Rhina Guidos in Holguin.
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Follow on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden and @CNS_Rhina.
Pope urges Cuba’s youths, consecrated people to love and hope
By Cindy Wooden
HAVANA (CNS) — In a hot and steamy cathedral after listening to a Daughter of Charity talk about her work with people with severe disabilities, Pope Francis set aside his prepared homily and spoke about serving those the world considers “useless.”
“Serving ‘the useless’ makes Jesus shine,” the pope said at an evening prayer service Sept. 20 with religious, priests and seminarians gathered in Havana’s cathedral.
Pope Francis thanked women religious around the world who dedicate themselves with love to caring for people the world ignores or would like to forget.
“Thank you for what you do and through you, thank you to all of these women, so many consecrated women, for their service to the ‘useless,'” he said. The religious “are not building an empire, you can’t make any money off of it, you can’t carry forward anything absolutely ‘constructive’ in quotes with those brothers and sisters of ours — the smallest, the least of these. That’s where Jesus shines.”
Those “who try to kiss you and cover your face with drool,” he said, “speak of Jesus.”
The pope said he knew the priests present, who work in normal parishes, were probably wondering what they should be doing to serve Jesus in the smallest, the weakest and the least of society.
Start with the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, he said, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. And, he begged them, spend time offering the sacrament of reconciliation, patiently and tenderly welcoming all.
Jesus did not berate sinners, the pope said, “he embraced them.”
The confessional, he said, is where every man and woman reveals his or her misery.
“If you are without sin, throw the first stone, but only on that condition,” the pope told the priests. “And think, you could be in that position and remember that in that moment, you hold a treasure in your hands,” the ministerial power to forgive sins in God’s name.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana introduced the congregation to the pope, telling him, “the church in Cuba is a poor church,” and the way that Cuban priests and religious and foreign missionaries embrace that poverty “is admirable.”
Pope Francis said the cardinal “used an uncomfortable word: poverty. The spirit of the world does not know that word, doesn’t seek it, hides it.”
Poverty, he said, can be a person’s greatest wealth, but the search for wealth can destroy a person’s life.
Quoting the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the pope said he wasn’t giving his order publicity, but found wisdom in St. Ignatius’ teaching that poverty “is the wall and the mother” of consecrated life. It stimulates trust in God and blocks out worldliness.
“Love poverty the way you love your mother,” he told them.
A wise old priest once told him, the pope said, that when a religious community becomes too attached to money, God usually sends a disastrous treasurer — “it’s a blessing.”
Daughter of Charity Sister Yaileny Ponce Torres, who works at a large government-run home for people with severe handicaps, spoke before the pope about her ministry. When she was about to begin her work, she said, another sister told her she would not be able to help “staring at Jesus” present in her patients.
“The place I live is beautiful,” she told the pope. “It is beautiful because there, God lives and shows himself in his weakest children.”
Pope Francis said Sister Ponce’s testimony was an illustration of responding to Jesus’ teaching that whatever one does for the least of his brothers and sisters is done for him.
Leaving the cathedral, the pope went outside to meet young people — Catholics, followers of other faiths and nonbelievers — at the Father Felix Varela cultural center.
Dreaming, hope and friendship were the key topics of his talk, which like his talk inside the cathedral, was ad-libbed.
He began by telling the youths of a saying he likes: “People have two eyes, one of flesh and the other of glass. With the eye of flesh we see what we look at. With the glass eye we see what we dream.”
“Dream that you can make the world different. Dream that you can make it better,” he told them. “Don’t forget to dream.”
Picking up on one of the themes he was discussing with the religious, Pope Francis told the young people “the empire of the god money” promotes the idea that one can and should discard anything or anyone that is not useful or productive, including young people and the elderly.
Societies and nations that do not invest in their young people, he said, are stripping themselves of hope.
Hope, he said, is not just easy optimism. It takes effort and a willingness to sacrifice and even suffer for a goal.
“It’s not easy. You cannot take it alone,” he said. “There is an African proverb that says ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to walk far, go with someone. I want you to walk with each other.’
“Even though you may think differently, that you have different points of view, I want you to walk together,” he said. “It is the sweet hope of homeland for which we must come together.”
“I urge you to try to talk about what we have in common and then we can talk about our differences. This is only possible when we have the ability to dialogue.”
Before leaving, Pope Francis asked the young people if they wanted him to pray with them.
“I ask that you pray for me,” he said. And acknowledging that not all of those present believe in God, he added, “if one of you is not able to pray for me, I ask that you wish good things for me.”
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Contributing to this story were Rhina Guidos in Holguin and Ezra Fieser in Santiago de Cuba.
Pope visits Fidel Castro before formal meeting with Cuba’s president
By Cindy Wooden
HAVANA (CNS) — Although it was not part of his formal program, Pope Francis took time after Sunday Mass to visit Cuba’s ailing former leader, Fidel Castro.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said that after the Mass Sept. 20 in Havana’s Revolution Square, Pope Francis was driven to the ailing 89-year-old’s residence for the meeting, which lasted 30-40 minutes.
In the presence of Castro’s wife, children and grandchildren, Father Lombardi said, the meeting was “familial and informal.”
Pope Francis, he said, picked up on the conversation Pope Benedict XVI had with Castro in 2012. At that time, Father Lombardi had said Castro had asked about how the Church is handling the ethical challenges posed by scientific and technological developments and the relationship between faith and reason, as well as the pope’s concerns about a growing number of people who don’t believe in God or act as if God does not exist.
“In the end,” Father Lombardi said at the time, “Commandante Fidel asked the pope to send him a few books” dealing with the questions he had.
Pope Francis arrived at the meeting at Castro’s home ready to continue the discussion and fulfill Castro’s desire to read more. Father Lombardi said the pope gave Castro two books by the Italian catechist, Father Alessandro Pronzato. One of the books is about the importance of humor and happiness in the spiritual life and the other on the Gospel and social issues.
In addition, he said, the pope brought a book and two CDs of homilies by Jesuit Father Armando Llorente, who had been one of Castro’s teachers in high school in Belen, Cuba.
To round off the gifts, Pope Francis also brought the former Cuban leader copies of his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” and “Laudato Si’,” his encyclical on the environment.
Castro returned the favor by giving the pope a copy of “Fidel & Religion: A Conversation With Fidel Castro” by Frei Betto.
After lunch and a rest, Pope Francis made a formal visit to President Raul Castro in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution.
While the pope and president were meeting privately, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, his secretary of state, and top Vatican diplomats were holding talks with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla and his staff.
The pope and president spent about 45 minutes speaking privately before exchanging gifts. Pope Francis gave the president a mosaic of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre made in the Vatican mosaic studio. The pope invited the artist, Valentina Ambrosi, to join his entourage for the trip, and he introduced her to Castro.
Castro’s gift to the pope was an enormous crucifix, which had been covered with a huge while cloth. The president ceremoniously unveiled it, revealing the cross made of bundled boat oars.
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Serve people, not ideology, pope tells Cubans at Havana Mass
By Cindy Wooden
HAVANA (CNS) — As Cubans finally face the prospects of calmer relationships and greater ease of communication and commerce with the United States, Pope Francis told the Cuban people that love and service, not anyone’s ideology, are the keys to their happiness.
“We do not serve ideas, we serve people,” the pope told hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Havana’s Revolution Square for Mass Sept. 20.
For decades the square has been the site of major communist government rallies and is dominated by a huge image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine Marxist who became a leader in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s.
The image of Che was prominent at the pope’s Mass, but so was a banner proclaiming Pope Francis a “missionary of mercy” and an even bigger image of the merciful Jesus.
After decades of communism, Mass attendance in Cuba is low; even the Vatican reports that only 60 percent of the population is baptized Catholic. But as a sign of the pope’s hopes for the growth of the church in Cuba, he granted an exception to his normal practice of personally giving Communion only to the altar servers and other ministers at his public Masses. Five Cuban children received their first Communion from the pope at the Mass.
In his homily, Pope Francis focused on an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that he tries to imitate: First of all, identify the good in a person, then help or challenge him or her to build on that good instinct or behavior.
Using the normal Sunday Mass readings, the pope’s homily was a reflection on the Gospel passage from St. Mark in which the disciples are arguing about who among them is the greatest, and Jesus asks what they were discussing.
“We, too, can be caught up in these same arguments: Who is the most important?” the pope said.
“I remember more than once, at family gatherings, children being asked: ‘Who do you love more, Mommy or Daddy?'” he said. “It’s like asking them: ‘Who is the most important for you?'”
In the lives of individuals and nations, he said, the question of who is most important can take on historic importance because it motivates action and choices. “The history of humanity has been marked by the answer we give to this question,” he said.
“Jesus is not afraid of people’s questions; he is not afraid of our humanity or the different things we are looking for,” Pope Francis told the crowd, which had filled the square before the sun came up. “He knows the ‘twists and turns’ of the human heart, and, as a good teacher, he is always ready to encourage and support us.”
Jesus takes “our searching, our aspirations, and he gives them a new horizon” and challenges people, he said. Jesus sets aside the “right answers” and replaces them with the standard of love as the measure of all.
Love, he said, is lived in a concrete commitment to caring for others — especially the most vulnerable. It does not see superiority, or the best jobs with the best benefits and it is not about helping just “my people” or “our people,” he said. Such an attitude always leads to judging and excluding some people as outsiders.
“Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it,” he said.
Pope Francis said he knows the Cuban people and the Catholic Church in Cuba have suffered. Yet, he said, they still know how to celebrate, to praise God and to serve others.
The greatness of a people and a nation, he said, is how it serves the vulnerable.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana addressed the pope at the end of the Mass “in the name of the Cuban people — the Catholics and many other believers, as well as nonbelievers. Thank you for coming to visit our land, our beloved Cuba; thank you for sowing with your pontificate, good and necessary questions in our consciences, which had been sleeping and accustomed to mediocrity.”
He particularly thanked the pope “for promoting the process of renewing relations between Cuba and the United States, which will bring such benefit to our people.”
Normal, friendly and cooperative relations, the cardinal said, should reach not just the highest political levels in both countries, but also promote reconciliation between people in Cuba and Cubans who emigrated.
“Only love and forgiveness among us will be a valid means for a true and peaceful renewal of our Cuban nation,” the cardinal said.
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Pope arrives in Cuba calling for freedom, better U.S.-Cuba relations
By Cindy Wooden
HAVANA (CNS) — Pope Francis began his visit to Cuba praying for greater freedom for the island’s people and calling on U.S. and Cuban politicians to continue moving toward fully normal and neighborly relations.
Meeting President Raul Castro and speaking before a small crowd at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport Sept. 19, Pope Francis said the Cuban-U.S. rapprochement announced in December is “an event which fills us with hope” after decades of tensions and a 55-year-old economic embargo against Cuba.
The new U.S.-Cuban relationship, which leaders of both countries said the pope had a role in facilitating, are “a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue,” Pope Francis said.
“I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world,” the pope said.
Briefly straying from his prepared text, the pope said, “Our world needs this reconciliation at this time of the ‘third world war,’ which is being fought in stages,” with multiple small conflicts going on simultaneously.
Castro told the pope that the full normalization of relations with the United States “will demand resolving problems and correcting injustices.”
The economic embargo, established by the United States in 1960, “is cruel, immoral and illegal, and it should cease,” Castro said. He also insisted the U.S. return the land on which the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay is constructed.
Highlighting the 80th anniversary of Vatican-Cuban diplomatic relations and the visits of St. John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, Pope Francis also encouraged the Cuban government to continue giving greater freedom to the Catholic Church in the communist country.
“Today we renew those bonds of cooperation and friendship, so that the church can continue to support and encourage the Cuban people in their hopes and concerns, with the freedom, means and space needed” to proclaim the Gospel, especially to people on the margins of society.
St. John Paul’s historic visit was hosted in part by Raul Castro’s brother Fidel, who led the country for more than 45 years. When Pope Benedict visited the country 14 years later, he made a point of visiting with the ailing Fidel.
At the airport welcoming ceremony, Pope Francis publicly asked the president “to convey my sentiments of particular respect and consideration to your brother Fidel.” Pope Francis also was expected to meet with Fidel Castro.
The Cuban Church described Pope Francis as a “missionary of mercy” to Cuba, where he was scheduled to stay until flying to the United States Sept. 22. In addition to Havana, the pope also was to visit Holguin and Santiago de Cuba with its nearby shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.
Our Lady of Charity, he said, “has accompanied the history of the Cuba people, sustaining the hope which preserves people’s dignity in the most difficult situations and championing the promotion of all that gives dignity to the human person.”
The pope said he would be visiting the shrine “as a son and a pilgrim to pray to our Mother for all her Cuban children and for this beloved nation, that it may travel the paths of justice, peace, liberty and reconciliation.”
Shortly after his Alitalia plane took off from Rome’s Fiumicino airport for the 11-hour flight to Havana, Pope Francis walked to the back of the plane to greet the 76 members of the media traveling with him to both Cuba and the United States.
Peace was on his mind as he set off from Rome, he said.
Just before leaving the Vatican, he said, he met the Syrian family of refugees being hosted by the Vatican’s St. Anne’s parish.
“Today the world is thirsting for peace,” the pope told reporters. “There are wars, there are migrants who are fleeing, this wave of migration that comes from wars, fleeing death and seeking life.”
“I was moved and became very emotional” meeting the family, he said. “You could see the pain in their faces.”
Pope Francis thanked the journalists “for all you do in your work to build bridges, small bridges of peace, because each bridge, each little bridge, one after the other, makes a big bridge of peace.”
The pope also said he knew the Sept. 19-28 trip would be challenging professionally for the media.
“If I’m not mistaken,” he said, “I think this is the longest trip I have made — one day longer than Brazil (in 2013). You will have a lot of work to do,” he said.
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