Pope meets Fidel Castro as Cuban visit comes to an end


HAVANA – Pope Benedict has urged Cubans to search for “authentic freedom” as he wound up his trip chatting to the communist country’s revolutionary icon Fidel Castro.

The two octogenarians spoke for about a half an hour in the Vatican embassy after the pope celebrated an open-air Mass for a crowd estimated by the Vatican at some 300,000 people in Havana’s Revolution Square.

Pope Benedict, who said last week that communism no longer worked in Cuba, pressed the government to let the Catholic Church teach religion in schools and universities.

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said Gen Castro told the pope he had watched the entire trip on television. They had an exchange of ideas about church liturgy, the world situation and science. “Castro asked the pope ‘what does a pope do?’ and the pope told him of his ministry, his trips and his service to the church,” Fr Lombardi said.

Gen Castro then asked Pope Benedict to choose a book for him to read and reflect on, and the pope said he would.

Earlier Pope Benedict, who was leaving for Rome last night, led a Mass in the sprawling plaza that Gen Castro (85), used to fill with big crowds and fiery revolutionary rhetoric in hours-long speeches.

Surrounded by 10-storey high images of Mr Castro’s revolutionary comrades, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the pope read a sermon that continued one of the main themes of his trip – that Cuba should build a more open society, based on truth, justice and reconciliation.

“The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom,” he said. In an apparent dig at Marxism, he also said some “wrongly interpret this search for the truth, leading them to irrationality and fanaticism; they close themselves in ‘their truth’, and try to impose it on others.”

Pope Benedict also made an apparent reference to Cuba’s tense relations with the United States, which imposed an economic embargo on the island 50 years ago.

“Cuba and the world need change, but this will occur only if each one is in a position to seek the truth and chooses the way of love, sowing reconciliation and fraternity,” he said.

The vast area was filled with people waving Cuban flags and wearing broad hats and holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun. As Pope Benedict arrived, they wildly welcomed the successor of the much-beloved Pope John Paul, who made a historic, groundbreaking trip to Cuba in 1998 and preached from the same square.

Pope Benedict read out a virtual shopping list of rights the church still lacks in Cuba as President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, sat in the front row.

Both Castro brothers were educated by Jesuits. – (Reuters)