The Second Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People

On Sunday, September 20, 2015, Pope Francis celebrated mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolutión before a crowd of thousands. In attendance were Cuban President Raúl Castro and other government officials. The Pope also had separate private meetings with Fidel and Raúl Castro and later presided at a vespers service and met with a group of young people.[1]

Celebration of Mass in Plaza de la Revolución

Mass

Crowd @ mass

 

 

 

 

The above photos show the large crowd at the Sunday morning mass at Plaza de la Revolución. In his homily Francis said, “The Gospel shows us Jesus asking a seemingly indiscreet question of his disciples: ‘What were you discussing along the way?’  It is a question he could also ask each of us today: ‘What do you talk about every day?  What are your aspirations?’  The Gospel tells us that the disciples ‘did not answer because on the way they had been arguing about who was the most important.’  The disciples were ashamed to tell Jesus what they were talking about.  As with the disciples then, we too can be caught up in these same arguments: who is the most important?”

“Jesus does not press the question.  He does not force them to tell him what they were talking about on the way.  But the question lingers, not only in the minds of the disciples, but also in their hearts.”

“Who is the most important?  This is a life-long question to which, at different times, we must give an answer.  We cannot escape the question; it is written on our hearts.  The history of humanity has been marked by the answer we give to this question.”

“Jesus is not afraid of people’s questions; he is not afraid of our humanity or the different things we are looking for.  On the contrary, he knows the ‘twists and turns’ of the human heart, and, as a good teacher, he is always ready to encourage and support us.  As usual, he takes up our searching, our aspirations, and he gives them a new horizon.  As usual, he somehow finds the answer which can pose a new challenge, setting aside the ‘right answers,’ the standard replies we are expected to give.  As usual, Jesus sets before us the ‘logic’ of love.  A mindset, an approach to life, which is capable of being lived out by all, because it is meant for all.”

“Far from any kind of elitism, the horizon to which Jesus points is not for those few privileged souls capable of attaining the heights of knowledge or different levels of spirituality.  The horizon to which Jesus points always has to do with daily life, also here on ‘our island.’ something which can season our daily lives with eternity.”

“Who is the most important?  Jesus is straightforward in his reply: ‘Whoever wishes to be the first among you must be the last of all, and the servant of all.’  Whoever wishes to be great must serve others, not be served by others.

“Here lies the great paradox of Jesus.  The disciples were arguing about who would have the highest place, who would be chosen for privileges, who would be above the common law, the general norm, in order to stand out in the quest for superiority over others.  Who would climb the ladder most quickly to take the jobs that carry certain benefits.”

“Jesus upsets their ‘logic.’ their mindset, simply by telling them that life is lived authentically in a concrete commitment to our neighbor.”

“The call to serve involves something special, to which we must be attentive.  Serving others chiefly means caring for their vulnerability.  Caring for the vulnerable of our families, our society, our people.  Theirs are the suffering, fragile and downcast faces which Jesus tells us specifically to look at and which he asks us to love.  With a love that takes shape in our actions and decisions.  With a love that finds expression in whatever tasks we, as citizens, are called to perform.  People of flesh and blood, people with individual lives and stories, and with all their frailty: these are those whom Jesus asks us to protect, to care for, to serve.  Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it.  That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.”

“There is a kind of ‘service’ that truly ‘serves,’ yet we need to be careful not to be tempted by another kind of service, a ‘service’ that is ‘self-serving/’  There is a way to go about serving which is interested in only helping ‘my people,’ [or] ‘our people.’  This service always leaves ‘your people’ outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion.”

“All of us are called by virtue of our Christian vocation to that service which truly serves, and to help one another not to be tempted by a ‘service’ that is really ‘self-serving.’  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.  Jesus tells us: Whoever would be first among you must be the last, and the servant of all.  He does not say: if your neighbor wants to be first, let him be the servant!  We have to be careful to avoid judgmental looks and renew our belief in the transforming look to which Jesus invites us.”

“This caring for others out of love is not about being servile.  Rather, it means putting our brothers and sisters at the center.  Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ in trying to help.  Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas. We serve people.”

“God’s holy and faithful people in Cuba are a people with a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things. It is a people who marches with songs of praise.  It is a people who has its wounds, like every other people, yet knows how to stand up with open arms, to keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation of grandeur.  Today I ask you to care for this vocation of yours, to care for these gifts that God has given you, but above all I invite you to care for and be at the service of the frailty of your brothers and sisters.  Do not neglect them for plans that can be seductive, but are unconcerned about the face of the person beside you.  We know, we are witnesses of the incomparable power of the resurrection, which ‘everywhere calls forth the seeds of a new world.’”

“Let us not forget the Good News we have heard today: the importance of a people, a nation, and the importance of individuals, which is always based on how they seek to serve their vulnerable brothers and sisters.  Here we encounter one of the fruits of a true humanity. ‘Whoever does not live to serve, does not ‘serve’ to live.’”

“We have heard in the Gospel how the disciples were afraid to question Jesus when he spoke to them about his passion and death.  He frightened them, and they could not grasp the idea of seeing Jesus suffer on the cross.  We too are tempted to flee from our own crosses and those of others, to withdraw from those who suffer.  In concluding this Holy Mass, in which Jesus has once more given himself to us in his body and blood, let us now lift our gaze to the Virgin Mary, our Mother.  We ask her to teach us to stand beside the cross of our brothers and sisters who suffer.  To learn to see Jesus in every person bent low on the path of life, in all our brothers and sisters who hunger or thirst, who are naked or in prison or sick.  With Mary our Mother, on the cross we can see who is truly “the greatest” and what it means to stand beside the Lord and to share in his glory.”

“Let us learn from Mary to keep our hearts awake and attentive to the needs of others.  As the wedding feast of Cana teaches us, let us be concerned for the little details of life, and let us not tire of praying for one another, so that no one will lack the new wine of love, the joy that Jesus brings us.”

“I ask you now to join with me in praying to Mary, that we may place all our concerns and hopes before the heart of Christ.  We pray to her in a special way for those who have lost hope and find no reasons to keep fighting, and for those who suffer from injustice, abandonment and loneliness.  We pray for the elderly, the infirm, children and young people, for all families experiencing difficulty, that Mary may dry their tears, comfort them with a mother’s love, and restore their hope and joy.  Holy Mother, I commend to you your sons and daughters in Cuba.  May you never abandon them!”

Although the Pope had no direct remarks regarding political issues facing Cuba, he did mention the ongoing peace negotiations in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels. He said, “I feel bound to direct my thoughts to the beloved land of Colombia, ‘conscious of the crucial importance of the present moment when, with renewed effort and inspired by hope, its sons and daughters are seeking to build a peaceful society.’ May the blood shed by thousands of innocent people during long decades of armed conflict, united to that of the Lord Jesus Christ crucified, sustain all the efforts being made, including those on this beautiful island, to achieve definitive reconciliation.  Thus the long night of pain and violence can, with the support of all Colombians, become an unending day of concord, justice, fraternity and love, in respect for institutions and for national and international law, so that there may be lasting peace.  Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.” He also added a word of gratitude to President Raul Castro for his efforts to assist the negotiations.

Meeting with Fidel Castro

The Pope & Fidel
The Pope & Fidel

In the early afternoon Francis met with Fidel Castro for about a half-hour at the former Cuban leader’s home. The conversation was reported to be informal and took place in the presence of Castro’s children and grandchildren.

In the Pope’s gifts for Fidel were a collection of sermons by Castro’s former Jesuit teacher, the Rev. Amando Llorente, and two CD recordings of the priest, who was forced to leave Cuba soon after Fidel took power in 1959 and who died in Miami in 2010. Other papal gifts were two books by an Italian priest, Alessandro Pronzato, and copies of Francis’ papal encyclical “Praise Be” and his book, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Francis’ biographer, Austen Invereigh, thinks the Llorente materials were sending a subtle message to Fidel, whose rule was marked by conflict with the Catholic Church and other groups.

Castro gave Francis a collection of his own conversations about religion with Brazilian priest Frei Betto: “Fidel and Religion: Castro Talks on Revolution and religion with Frei Betto” (1988),

Meeting with Raúl Castro

Pope + Raul@ PalceRaul +Pope

 

 

 

 

Later in the afternoon the Pope met with President Raúl Castro and other government officials at the Palace de la Revolutión as shown in the above photographs. The President showed Francis what appear to be official gifts for the Pontiff on display inside the Palace: a huge crucifix made of oars and a painting of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

Before their private meeting at the Palace, Pope Francis was heard saying to Castro: “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 [of 3,522 prisoners].”

Vespers Service

Pope Francis @ Cathedral
Pope Francis @ Cathedral

That evening Francis presided over a vespers service in Havana’s 18th century Immaculate Conception and San Cristobal Cathedral.

He did not read his prepared homily, but instead spoke extemporaneously on the importance of poverty to the Roman Catholic Church. “Our dear mother church is poor. God wants it poor, as he wanted our Holy Mother Mary to be poor. The spirit of the world does not follow the path of the son of God who emptied himself and became poor to be like us.”

He also warned of the dangers of falling prey to the temptations of wealth. “When possessions enter the heart and guide your life, you have already lost, you are no longer like Jesus. He quoted St. Ignatius when he said that poverty was the mother and also the wall of consecrated life. Pope Francis summoned the spirit of dispossession, to leave everything behind in order to follow Jesus.

Meeting with Young People

Francis finished his busy day with a meeting with hundreds of young people at the Félix Varela Cultural Center, which is the former San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary and which is not far from the Cathedral.

The young people presented him for blessing a cross that will accompany them during World Youth Day in 2016, and one of them said, “Our great strength lies in maintaining solidarity at all costs to help us to overcome any obstacle.” Their representative then welcomed the Pope to Cuba, saying “the Cuban youth love you.”

In his message to the young people, Francis cited the words of a Latin American writer: “People have two eyes, one of flesh and the other made of glass, with the one of flesh we see what we are looking at, with the one made of glass we see what we dream.” The ability to dream must be included within the objectivity of life. “He who cannot dream is not young.” Dream that the world may be different, if you give the best of yourselves you will help to have a different world. “ Do not forget to dream,” he insisted.

A family is destroyed by enmity, a country destroyed by enmity, the world is destroyed by enmity. And the biggest enmity is war,” the Pope stated. We all must have respect for differences and work together for the common good. Let’s negotiate, but not kill the world anymore. We are killing the ability to unite, to create social friendship.”

“To you, young Cubans, although you have different views, I want you to be accompanied, seeking the future and the dignity of your homeland together. At the end something even better awaits you, the sweet hope of the motherland we want to achieve. I will pray for you and ask you to pray for me, and if one cannot pray because he is not a believer, at least, wish me good things. May God bless you all.”

Conclusion

Once again I am impressed and moved by the words and actions of Pope Francis. He has a constant message of humility, love and forgiveness for individuals and nations. I give thanks to God for Francis!

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[1] Yardley & Ahmed, Pope Francis Celebrates Mass at Political Heart of Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2015); Reuters, Pope Celebrates First Mass in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2015) (video); Assoc. Press, Pope in Cuba Begs Colombia, Rebels to End Conflict, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2015); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Pope Presides Over Vespers Service in Cathedral, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2015); Reuters, Pope Meets Fidel Castro, Warns Against Ideology on Cuba Trip, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2015);Assoc. Press, The Latest: Pope speaks of importance of poverty to the church, Wash. Post (Sept. 20, 2015); Pope Francis in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución (+ Photos), Granma (Sept. 20, 2015); Pope Francis in Cuba: Minute by minute, Granma (Sept. 20, 2015); Pope in Havana: prays for success of Colombian peace talks, Vatican Radio (Sept. 20, 2015); Pope in Cuba: serve rather than be served, Vatican Radio (Sept. 20, 2015); Pope meets former Cuba president Fidel Castro, Vatican Radio (Sept. 20, 2015); Pope at Vespers: Be a poor and merciful Church in Cuba, Vatican Radio (Sept. 20, 2015).

 

Pope Francis Holds Private Audience with Raúl Castro

President Castro & Pope Francis
President Castro & Pope Francis

On Sunday, May 10th, Pope Francis held an hour-long private audience at the Vatican with Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba.[1]

Immediately afterwards President Castro gave the Pontiff two gifts. One was a painting of a large cross made with several boats and a child praying to the cross; the Cuban artist Alexis Leyva Machado said the painting was referring to the suffering of thousands of African people trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The other gift for the Pope was a medal commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Cathedral of Havana. In turn, the Holy Father gave Raúl a copy of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” and a medal “St. Martin of Tours and the beggar covered with the mantle,” explaining that he gave it to world leaders because it recalls the obligation to help the poor and at the same time promote dignity.

At a subsequent press conference, Castro praised the Pope for helping Cuba and the United States to reach an agreement to restore diplomatic relations and resolve other issues and promised a warm welcome for Francis when he goes to Cuba in September. Castro also said he had been “very impressed by [Francis’] wisdom, his modesty, and all his virtues that we know he has.”

On a personal note, Castro said, “When the Pope comes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his Masses and I will be happy to do so.” He added that he reads all of the speeches of Francis, who has made defense of the poor a major plank of his papacy. Moreover, Castro said, “If the Pope continues to talk as he does, sooner or later I will start praying again and return to the Catholic Church, and I am not kidding.” (Both Mr. Castro and his brother Fidel Castro were baptized as Roman Catholics.)[2]

Raúl was kidding, however, when he said, “The pontiff is a Jesuit, and I, in some way, am too. I studied at Jesuit schools.” Castro also observed that he was “from the Cuban Communist Party that used to not allow [religious] believers, but now [since 1991] we are allowing it. It’s an important step.”

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Yardley, Raúl Castro Meets with Pope Francis at Vatican, N.Y. Times (May 10, 2015); Pullella, Raul Castro meets pope, says might return to the Church, Reuters (May 10, 2015); Scammell, Castro thanks Pope Francis for brokering thaw between Cuba and US, Guardian (May 10, 2015); Ordoz, Castro: “If the Pope continues, I’ll pray and return to the church,” El Pais (May 10, 2015) (Google translation); BBC, Raul Castro thanks Pope Francis for brokering Cuba-U.S. deal, (May 10, 2015); Francisco Raul and the Pope meet in historic meeting, Granma (May 10, 2015) (Google translation).

[2] The Cuban newspaper Granma previously cited report of this historic meeting and the subsequent press conference did not mention Castro’s comments about his plan to attend all the Pope’s masses in Cuba and perhaps to start praying and return to the Catholic Church.