Pope Benedict XVI is to wrap up his visit to Cuba with an open-air Mass in the shrine of the Cuban revolution, and a meeting with Fidel Castro.
The former Cuban leader announced late yesterday that he would happily meet with Benedict, saying he was asking for just a “few minutes of his very busy time” in Havana.
The Vatican had already said Benedict was available, so the confirmation from Castro was all that was needed to seal the appointment and end weeks of speculation as to whether Castro would repeat the meeting he held with Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 visit.
“I will happily greet His Excellency Pope Benedict XVI as I did John Paul II, a man for whom contact with children and the humble raised feelings of affection,” Castro wrote. “That’s why I decided to ask for a few minutes of his very busy time when I heard from the mouth of our foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, that he would be agreeable.”
The audience and Benedict’s Mass in Revolution Plaza come 14 years after John Paul preached on the same spot before hundreds of thousands of people, Fidel among them. Then, an image of Jesus Christ was displayed opposite the plaza’s iconic image of revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a remarkable development for a country that had been officially atheist until 1992.
This time around, a huge poster of Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, covered the facade of one of the buildings facing the plaza near Che. The icon has been the spiritual focus of Benedict’s three-day visit, timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the diminutive statue.
Benedict visited the statue in a sanctuary near the eastern city of Santiago yesterday morning and prayed to her for greater freedom and renewal for all Cubans – another gentle nudge to the government to continue opening itself up to greater reforms.
“I have entrusted to the Mother of God the future of your country, advancing along the ways of renewal and hope, for the greater good of all Cubans,” the Pope said. “I have also prayed to the Virgin for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones or who are undergoing times of difficulty.”
A top official in Havana later responded: “In Cuba, there will not be political reform.”