On Saturday, September 19, at 15:52 (Cuban time; EST) Pope Francis’ airplane from Rome arrived at Havana’s airport. This post will cover the Pope’s flight to Cuba, the final hours of Cuba’s preparation and anticipation of his arrival; and his arrival. Subsequent posts will cover each of the Pope’s other three days in Cuba and then each of his six days in the United States of America.
The Pope’s Flight to Cuba
At 04:15 (EST) the Pope’s plane left Rome with an entourage that included Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Vatican “Foreign Minister” Monsignor John Gallagher. From the plane the Pope issued many tweets. One of them said: “I ask you to join me in praying for my trip to Cuba and the United States.”
On the plane the Pope told journalists, “I love the Cuban people a great deal.” He also noted the need to extend a hand and open parish doors to immigrants.
Preparations in Havana
That morning U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement acknowledging, “The visit [next week] of His Holiness Pope Francis to the United Nations comes at a moment of challenge and hope. As the world struggles to cope with conflict, poverty and climate change, Pope Francis has been a leading voice for urgent action to protect people and our planet.” The Secretary General’s message also included the following words:
- “I am deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to meet several times with His Holiness, who impressed me as a man of great humility and humanity. When we met last year at the Vatican in May, the Pope urged senior United Nations officials to ‘work together in promoting a true, worldwide ethical mobilization which, beyond all differences of religious or political convictions, will spread and put into practice a shared ideal of fraternity and solidarity, especially with regard to the poorest and those most excluded.’”
- “Pope Francis has called on people everywhere to work towards realizing the new sustainable development goals ‘with generosity and courage.’ As I discussed with the Pope, this will require challenging all forms of injustice.”
- “I fully concur with Pope Francis in his recent encyclical that climate change is a moral issue, in addition to its other dimensions, and one of the principal challenges facing humanity. His Holiness rightly cited the solid scientific consensus showing significant warming of the climate system, with most global warming in recent decades mainly a result of human activity.”
- “Pope Francis and I wholeheartedly agree on the urgency for action, and the critical need to support the poorest and most vulnerable members of our human family from a crisis they did least to cause, but suffer from the most. Other faith groups have echoed this view, including most recently a gathering of eminent Islamic scholars and religious leaders.”
- “Pope Francis’ message extends far beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. On the first page of his recent encyclical, the Pope states that ‘faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.’”
- “Pope Francis has demonstrated the value of religious leaders engaging on these pressing global issues. I count on him and other faith leaders to counteract the prevailing forces of division and hate with dialogue and understanding. Together, we can realize our vision of a peaceful world where all people live in safety and dignity.”
Later that morning Frei Betto–a Brazilian Roman Catholic priest and the author of “Fidel and Religion: Castro Talks on Revolution and Religion with Frei Betto” (1988)–held a press conference at Havana’s Hotel Nacional. He noted that “only two Latin American countries have had the privilege of receiving, in a relatively short period of time (17 years), the visit of the last three Popes: Brazil and Cuba.” While 70% of Brazilians are Roman Catholic, Cuba has religious syncretism. With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Frei said, the challenges point toward the need to change attitudes within the U.S. government. Francis is undertaking a revolution within the Catholic Church itself, which is why some see him as the leading statesman of our time and as a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed, added Frei, Francis preaches in favor of peaceful coexistence in the world, reaching out to the poor and boosting high-impact programs to eradicate hunger, poverty and environmental degradation. The Cuban Revolution has taught evangelical values, which are the same as human moral values and are not “additional” for revolutionaries or for the religious.
Welcoming Francis at Havana’s Airport
The Pope was met at the airplane by Cuban President Raul Castro accompanied by the Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Cuban Archbishop Jamie Lucas Cardinal Ortega. In a lengthy speech that recited many of the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s claims against the U.S., President Castro said his meeting with the Pope at the Vatican gave them the opportunity to exchange ideas about important world issues. We have followed your statements about these issues with much interest. We want future generations to inherit human dignity from us. The weight of the crisis falls on the third world and minorities do not escape from it. Your Holiness, we have thanked you for your support during the talks between the United States and Cuba. Now the Pope’s meetings with the Cuban people will be very important.
Francis responded by thanking the Cuban people for their welcome and expressing his fraternal greetings to Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro. The Pope recalled that the 80th anniversary of Cuba and the Holy See’s uninterrupted relationship is being celebrated; that Popes John Paul II and Benedicto XVI had visited Cuba; and that this trip coincides with the centenary of the declaration of Cobre’s Our Lady of Charity as Cuba’s patron saint. Francis said that Cuba plays an extraordinary role in the meeting of the North and South, East and West. Its natural vocation is as a point of encounter. The process underway toward the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the U.S. is an example of the effectiveness of a culture of exchange and dialogue.
The Pope then left for the Apostolic Nunciature in Havana where he stayed the night. On the journey there an estimated 100,000 Cubans were on the streets to welcome him, as shown in the photographs below.
Vatican Spokesman’s Press Conference
The Vatican spokesman, Monsignor Federico Lombardi, then held a press conference at Hotel Nacional. He said that peace was the key word for this visit, that the Pope was greatly moved by the Cuban people’s warm welcome and enthusiasm; that the Pope had highlighted the importance of 80 years of uninterrupted ties between Cuba and the Vatican; and that the Pope will visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as a son and pilgrim.
Lombardi also emphasized that the Catholic Church and the current and previous Popes are opposed to the U.S. blockade. The process of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana constituted a sign of hope to change the history of relations between the two countries. Peace, reconciliation and the building of bridges: clear messages from Pope Francis regarding the significance of his current apostolic visit to Cuba and the United States.
According to Lombardi, the Pope’s speech at the airport and his subsequent speeches are directed toward Cuban men and women, including Cubans throughout the world no matter where they reside. Many of them remember the historic words of the first Pope to visit Cuba, now a Saint, (John Paul II): “May Cuba with all its glorious possibilities open up to the world, and may the world open up to Cuba.”
The incredible major sources for this and subsequent posts about the Cuban mission are Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, and the Vatican.
The online edition of Granma at 06:03 a.m. (Cuban time) commenced a minute-by-minute reporting (with photographs) of the Pope’s plane’s earlier departure from Rome and of the preparations in Cuba. It also mentioned the Cuban government’s establishment of a Twitter account: #ElPapaEnCuba. Another article in Granma focused on the actual airport arrival.
While the coverage of the Pope’s first day in Cuba by the Cuban media was focused on the details of what actually happened, the New York Times’ lead article chose to concentrate on what it saw as the Pope’s “new challenge” of trying to “open up Cuba to the Roman Catholic Church.” Its first quotation was from the Rev. Jorge Cela, who oversaw the Jesuit religious order in Cuba from 2010 to 2012, who said, “It is an occasion to ask for more openness. The relationship is not easy.” Its second identified source was Rev. José Conrado, a Cuban priest in the central city of Trinidad, who said, “We could do more. The church should not back off, even if doing so is difficult and problematic for the church itself.” The balance of the Times’ article talked about criticism of Cuban Archbishop Ortega and the need to find his successor when he retires.
The Washington Post’s lead article at least covered the welcoming speeches at the Havana airport in addition to discussing issues about the Roman Catholic’s role in Cuba and whether they would be the subjects of the Pope’s public comments or private discussions with President Castro.