Pope calls on Cubans to serve people not ideology

Francis warmly welcomed as he celebrates Mass in Revolution Square, Havana

The Cuban government releases video footage of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his family meeting with Pope Francis during his historic visit to the Caribbean nation. Video: Reuters

 

Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Havana’s Revolution Plaza, telling an audience of tens of thousands of Cubans in the communist state that service was not about serving an ideology but about serving people.

On the second day of his visit to Cuba, the first leg of a tour that moves on to the US on Tuesday, the 78-year-old Argentine pontiff celebrated Mass in front of government and church dignitaries, including Cuba’s president Raúl Castro and Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

In his homily, the pope returned to his dearly held theme of inclusion and protecting the most vulnerable, urging people to look out for the weakest in society and “not sideways to see what your neighbour does”.

“This caring for others out of love is not about being servile: service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people,” said the pope on his first visit to Cuba. The first pope from Latin America urged people to be at the service of the frailty of their brothers and sisters and not to neglect them “for plans which can be seductive”, he said.

Fruits of humanity

“The importance of the person is always based on the fragility of brothers. Here we find the true fruits of humanity because he who doesn’t live to serve doesn’t deserve to live,” he said.

Speaking in the shadow of memorials to two heroes of the Cuban revolutionary movement, José Martí and Che Guevara, the pontiff attempted to capture the spirit of the Cubans, calling them a people with “a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things”.

“It is a people which has its wounds, like every other people, yet knows how to stand with open arms, to keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation of grandeur,” he said.

As Francis was driven to the stage in his popemobile, past supporters waving Cuban, Vatican and Argentine flags, two men and a women threw leaflets towards him and were instantly apprehended by security guards. They were later arrested, the Associated Press reported.

The pope has been warmly welcomed on his visit because of his vocal support of the poor and for helping to broker negotiations that led to the historic re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba after more than a half century of cold-war tensions.

After landing at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on Saturday afternoon, Francis called the rapprochement “an example of reconciliation for the whole world” and urged Havana and Washington to “persevere on this path and develop all its possibilities”.

At the ceremony, president Raúl Castro described the 53-year US economic embargo of Cuba “cruel, immoral and illegal” and said it should cease. He called for the return of Guantanamo Bay in the southeast of Cuba, which the US has controlled for 113 years.

Cubans gathered at Revolution Plaza spoke positively of the pope and what the talks with the US might lead to. “I am happy he’s here because I am Catholic and he came to confirm the peace that is here, and by being here it is always going to be this way,” said Nancy (65), a retired Afro-Cuban woman from nearby Cerro.

Peace

“It is a visit we will take advantage of because he is a man who favours peace and the wellbeing and good of people, and also because he is Latin,” said Reme (71), a security guard from Havana.

After Mass the pope met Mr Castro for a formal engagement before celebrating evening prayer with priests and seminarians. He also met young people at a cultural centre dedicated to the 19th-century Cuban priest Félix Varela, who became a vicar-general of New York City after fleeing a death sentence in Spanish-controlled Cuba. Varela was a prominent figure in his latter years in the US, where he learned Irish to help with the influx of emigrants fleeing the Famine.

Pope Francis flies to Cuba’s fourth-largest city, Holguin, in the east of the Caribbean island nation today, then on to nearby Santiago tomorrow before flying out to Washington for the second leg of his trip, a five-day visit to the US.

Meeting Fidel

The pope met former Cuban president Fidel Castro (89) privately for a half-hour conversation at the home of the leader of Cuba’s 1959 socialist revolution. Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said that the meeting was attended by Mr Castro’s wife, children and grandchildren.

The Pope gave the communist revolutionary several books, two CDs of homilies and copies of his two encyclicals. In return, Mr Castro gave the pope a book called Fidel and Religion dating back to 1985. “For Pope Francis, on occasion of his visit to Cuba, with the admiration and respect of the Cuban people,” was inscribed on the book.

Fr Lombardi described the meeting as “familiar and informal” and that they spoke about “protecting the environment and the great problems of the contemporary world.”

The pope’s spokesman said that out of respect for the family and the informality of their meeting, no photographs of their encounter would be released. However, a picture of the meeting was later released by Fidel Castro’s son Alex.